As William Hague breezes cheerfully into The Northern Echo's offices, the morning's papers are still being digested. Mr Hague, though, has already consumed them all and is ready to spit them out.

"I don't believe the Labour Party's lead is anything like what it is in most of the opinion polls and I don't believe people around the country believe it either," he says.

The morning's Daily Telegraph has the Conservatives languishing 26 points behind, Labour astonishingly ahead by 55 per cent to the Tories 29. Its analysis by an eminent political professor concludes with the withering paragraph: "The Conservative Party today is probably suffering from the greatest credibility gap in its long and distinguished history."

Surely Mr Hague should have the common sense to know when the game is up, to curl up in a corner while the internecine battle for his job breaks out around him.

But he's not. Lean and fit, he comes out fighting. He doesn't look like a man under pressure, a man who's about to lead the party to its worst defeat in 160 years. His self-confidence shines out almost as much as his brass neck.

Even though the polls suggest some of his MPs are likely to be voted out of the House of Commons, he happily jokes about the result of the other great referendum, about who'll be voted out of the house of Big Brother.

"I felt very sorry for Chris Eubank when he was thrown out on the first vote," he says. "Everybody's campaigning for Jack Dee, but I've got enough problems predicting the election outcome, never mind the outcome of Big Brother."

But seriously, he says, the Conservatives' own research suggests that, in the key marginal seats, they are neck and neck with Labour, with at least a quarter of the voters being what is termed in polling parlance "soft" - yet to decide where they will put their cross.

"We are the underdog," he admits. "There's no doubt about that. But we knew we would be the underdog on May 2, 1997. On the basis of everything we've seen since, we are going to do well. I'm confident, optimistic, upbeat. That's what I'm paid to be and that's what I am."

One of the reasons for Labour extending its lead was probably Mr Hague's speech at the beginning of the month in which he claimed Britain would be a "foreign land" at the end of a second Labour government. Even some within the party worried this was veering too far into extreme territory.

"Labour is turning Britain into a different country and we won't recognise it as Britain any more if we allow it to carry on," he insists.

"At the end of another term of Labour, our pound, our national currency, would be lost forever. More and more of our powers would be signed away to Brussels, police morale would have suffered further so there would be greater problems with crime. I think that is the process of turning the country into a different country.

"And I think in New Labour we have a set of politicians who have no regard for the history, traditions, habits or institutions of our country and, if you don't understand the importance of those things, you are not fit to lead that country into the future."

His arms lie straight before him on the table, displaying blue cufflinks at his wrists with a map of the British Isles on them.

To keep that map intact, he would propose to scrap the regional development agencies, which are threatening to turn England into a nation of eight regions.

"We want to deliver assistance to regions like the North-East in a different way," he says, "by local councils working together and with regeneration companies which would have major private sector involvement.

"There should be more focus on the areas that most need help, the remaining pockets of high unemployment and social deprivation, and we would have a rural development fund to make sure rural areas get their fair share.

"We have enough layers of government and I don't think the answer for the region or the country is additional tiers of politicians.

"Real devolution to local communities is giving power to local authorities, schools, hospitals."

Part of the Conservatives' polling problem has been their inability to capitalise on Labour's difficulties. After an initial surge, the status quo returned when the autumn's fuel protest subsided. The Mandelson affair has not had any impact and Mr Hague does not want to be seen to be exploiting the food-and-mouth crisis for political benefit.

"I am not seeking to criticise the Government because it has to handle an extremely difficult and obviously unexpected situation," he says. "We have suggested, and will continue to suggest, additional things it could be doing."

Calling in the Army to help disposal of carcasses is one, increasing the number of vets by calling in students is another.

He has long been calling for a policy of "slaughter on suspicion" which, as the Government moves towards it, is being viewed with dismay by some farmers.

"I'm very concerned about tourist-related businesses," Mr Hague continues. "The Government could now announce an exemption from business rates. It underspent its budget by £1m which shows the money is there.

"Giving £25m to local authorities would pay for one third of all the rural tourist businesses in the country to have a rate exemption for six months and would help immediately with their cashflow problems."

He is also thinking about the future after the disease has abated. "The way to tackle the supermarkets' dominance is for the producers to take greater powers," he says.

"I have been having this discussion with my local farmers for the last 12 years. When I started out as MP for Richmond, I had this wonderful idea that if we could get farmers into large co-operative organisations we could get market power for the primary producers so they could command a fairer price for their product. It happens in many other parts of Europe and would counterbalance the power of the supermarkets.

"Everybody agrees in principle it's a great idea. We offered grants under the last government to assist it, but few were taken up. There's an individualism in farming and it is difficult to get them together, but that's the way we have to go.

"Government encouraging and sponsoring - that would be very worthwhile, but it didn't work last time and so we are going to have to find a better way of doing it.

"Until we do, farmers will end up with only a fraction of the retail price of their products."

It shows the topsy-turvy nature of the political world that Tony Blair is regarded as one of the best conservative Prime Ministers while the leader of the Conservative Party talks of socialist ideals of co-operatives and collectivism to smash the control of the big capitalists.

But is it topsy-turvy enough for a party 26 points behind to win a General Election in six-and-a-half weeks time?