On the wall of William Hague’s office in Smith Square hangs a large oil painting of some friendly-looking sheep. It’s by Mackenzie Thorpe, a Yorkshire artist who found national fame in 1998 when the Hagues reproduced one of his canvases on their Christmas card. ‘Everyone psychoanalysed the dark clouds in it,’ Hague recalls with that weirdly hypnotic loud-quiet, long-short, flat-vowelled speech pattern of his. ‘They said it meant I was depressed. But I think if you like something you have to stick with it, which is why we used a Mackenzie Thorpe the following year, and the year after that, too.’
So, I ask, is he planning on taking a Mackenzie Thorpe with him to hang on the wall at Number Ten? ‘Of course!’ He stands back to study the painting through gently narrowed eyes. ‘That one, in fact’. Broad, tight-lipped grin. ‘I told Mackenzie we would move that one.’
William Hague’s manner is brisk but genial. He looks trim and, as everyone notes when they meet him for the first time, he is much taller than caricaturists depict him. (Let the record show: the distance from the top of his balding head – he has his hair razor-cut every ten days – to his size 9 shoes is 5ft 11in.) He’s wearing a bespoke dark blue suit, a pager on his belt and a wedding ring. His cufflinks, a present from his wife, Ffion, picture an outline of the British Isles. (And Ffion really did buy them, unlike the pound-sign pendant, a ‘love gift’, which William bought for Ffion – with a little help from his press secretary, Amanda Platell.)
It is Thursday morning. Late February. I hold up the front page of the day’s Times. The headline reads ‘Hague engulfed in poll gloom’. A Mori poll has revealed that, with a 20 per cent lead, Labour enjoys as commanding a position in the polls as it did before its election victory in May 1997, while confidence in Hague among Tory voters has fallen to its lowest level for nearly a year. Any normal person would be gnawing away at the carpet by now, or at least gibbering quietly to himself in the corner. Isn’t that what he feels like doing? ‘Certainly not!’ Hague says with a short laugh. ‘I wouldn’t even waste two seconds contemplating that headline.’ Serious face. ‘We know from being out and around the country that things are not as bad as they were during the last election, when there was a great hostility to our party. So an opinion poll that says they are as bad isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. We know we are the underdogs, but we knew that on 2 May 1997. The difference now is that people are interested once more in what we are saying. And there is a lot of disillusionment with the Labour Party which wasn’t there before. There’s a feeling that Labour has failed to deliver.’
I suppose doggedness and preternatural calm in the face of adversity are what we have come to expect from Hague. But while it was impressive at first, now there is something unsettling about it. Is it a Zen thing? As a young man he used to practise transcendental meditation. Has he taken it up again on the quiet? ‘No. I don’t have time really. I haven’t forgotten how to do it. But, er, I do other things. Judo, which keeps you on an even keel. Three sessions a week. I’m going to have a session after this conversation.’ Would it help if I asked a really irritating question to get him fired up before his bout? ‘Thanks! But actually it’s only if you keep balanced and your temper even that you win in judo. Getting angry or over-excited doesn’t get you anywhere, and being defeatist means you are easily defeated. There’s a parallel there with politics.’
Thursday afternoon. Loughborough college, in deepest Leicestershire. A fine drizzle. Hague is due to address a gathering of Tory Party activists, but his chauffeur-driven Rover (it comes with the job) is held up in traffic. Ffion Hague will not be putting in an appearance on this occasion (her husband has joked that he no longer takes her with him on campuses since a survey revealed that she was the politician’s wife most students would like to sleep with), but his friend, judo partner and private secretary Sebastian Coe will be there. Indeed the former Tory MP, Olympic gold medallist and now peer of the realm is always, always there. Seb is the Sancho Panza to William’s Don Quixote, the Jiminy Cricket to William’s Pinocchio, the Grommit to William’s Wallace.
An advance party of Tory activists waits by the hall entrance, checking hair, adjusting ties. As Hague strides with springy step towards them, they cheer and surge forward. Most of the party workers – average age 60, ladies in hats and tweed, men with red faces, feral eyebrows and regimental blazer badges – are waiting in a large student union bar inside. They nibble sausage rolls and vol-au-vents and sip glasses of warm wine, but the wait has been longer than expected and they have grown restless. When a man with a Union Jack tie announces that William will be with them shortly but that he has to do a few interviews with the local media first, there are groans. ‘Please be patient,’ the Union Jack adds. ‘We are trying to win an election here, after all.’
Hague doesn’t seem to suffer from the petty vanities I’ve noticed other politicians are prone to: he doesn’t bother with face powder or check himself in a mirror as he sits down for a five-minute television interview. There’s no hair to check, of course, and this, contrary to what trichologists would have society believe, might give him a sense of security about his appearance. His hair loss simply doesn’t bother him. It started thinning when he was 17. ‘It makes life very simple actually. You could be giving a TV interview in a howling gale and it no longer matters.’ If only in this respect, Blair has the bigger problem.
Two local newspaper reporters and a radio interviewer are waiting outside for their turn. A young woman from the Loughborough Echo asks what Hague thinks should be done about the problem of phone masts in Leicestershire. Without missing a beat, he comes up with an answer about the need for better consultation. He has been briefed – briefly – on the local issues but, still, the omniscience expected of politicians is staggering. The next question is about a local textile manufacturer. But even this is preferable to the killer question asked by a local radio reporter. ‘Neil Kinnock’s main problem was that, for all his strengths, people simply couldn’t see him as a future Prime Minister. He lacked the physical charisma. The star quality. The same is being said of you, Mr Hague. How does that make you feel?’ Hague grins. ‘Well, they also said that of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.’ Satisfied with this answer the reporter says, ‘I know this sounds a bit sad, but can I have my photograph taken with you?’
Sitting a few feet away, Sebastian Coe interjects, ‘There’s nothing sad in wanting to have your photograph taken with the future Prime Minister!’ The reporter produces a camera but, to his obvious embarrassment, it doesn’t work. Hague tells him not to worry and asks one of his press officers to find someone who can take a photograph and send it on.
One of the organisers pops her head around the door and says, ‘Roger has been doing a warm-up, but they are getting pretty steamed up in there.’ Hague claps his hands. ‘Right then, let’s get on with it.’ There is a big cheer as he enters. He stands in front of a blue screen displaying the Conservative torch logo, behind a lectern emblazoned with COMMON SENSE FOR LEICESTERSHIRE – a curious plea that makes you wonder what erratic behaviour Leicestershire has been guilty of lately. Hague apologises for being late, and raises a laugh with a tried and tested line – ‘I asked Tony Blair the other day when he planned to have a referendum and he said, “Within two years.” I was asked later if I was surprised. “I was,” I said. “But not nearly as surprised as the Cabinet.”’
He is soon in his stride, chopping the side of one hand against the palm of the other: ‘… I want to give people their country back… save the pound… stealth tax… political correctness… common sense… beating crime… marriage is the bedrock of our society.’
Political commentators agree that Hague is probably the most naturally talented orator to have led the Tories since Churchill. One can see why his grand rhetorical manner plays well in the House of Commons and why Blair so often seems to be left floundering after their encounters in Prime Minister’s question time. But as Hague addresses the party faithful in Loughborough, there is an unfamiliar edginess to his mocking tone. ‘This Government is the most hypocritical, pompous, cynical lot of people I have ever come across… When I saw Mandelson sitting next to Blair on the front bench the other day I thought, “One down, one to go.”‘
Three years ago, Hague was quoted in this newspaper as having said that Blair had ‘personal strengths’ and that he enjoyed gossiping with him. Has he since grown to hate the Labour leader? ‘I’ve lost respect for him over time. We have cordial relations whenever we need to discuss things about Northern Ireland or national security. But he is essentially a fraud. He doesn’t hesitate to say the opposite of the truth and twist every fact and attribute to other people motives and policies that they don’t have. That is quite a low standard of debate.’
The speech over, the party activists suitably galvanised, Hague works his way around the room, shaking hands, signing autographs, having his photograph taken next to candidates for the local council elections. I overhear a woman say, ‘Taller than you think, isn’t he?’ A man with a pound sign in his lapel says: ‘Isn’t that Seb Coe over by the door?’ It is. When I wander over to join Coe he says, ‘I’ve just remembered I was once kicked out of this bar when I was a student.’ (Drunken revelries, apparently. These Tories never pass up a chance to show that their formative years were ‘normal’.) Coe checks his watch. Time for the next engagement: a black-tie dinner hosted by Leicestershire Chamber of Commerce.
Thursday evening. Jarvis Grand Hotel, Leicester. We are in Keith Vaz’s constituency. There are several hundred guests, Labour supporters as well as Conservative, and Hague, the guest speaker, is sitting next to the President of the Chamber, at the top table. A fire alarm goes off halfway through the dinner. The MC tells everyone to stay seated. When he returns to announce a false alarm, Hague says: ‘It was just Keith Vaz trying to gatecrash.’
It is sometimes said that if Hague ever left politics he could do worse than try a career as a stand-up comedian. He opens his speech with a joke at his host’s expense, comparing a president to a parrot. He pauses to ride the laugh, then he recalls how, three years ago, the Sun pictured him on its front page as a dead parrot. More laughter. This prompts him to list his favourite political headlines, among them SEWAGE CRISIS – HEATH TO STEP IN! and HOME SECRETARY TO ACT ON PORN VIDEOS. The political tub-thumping follows. The Government is only out to help those who don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t drive, don’t have a mortgage and don’t want to get married. ‘But the only people I know like that are in the Cabinet.’ Boom-boom.
Friday morning, 9.15. I hold up a copy of the day’s Mirror. The front page pictures Hague, mouth turned down, next to the headline ‘COME ON TONY, PUT HIM OUT OF HIS MISERY. CALL THE ELECTION NOW’. Hague’s white helicopter lands on a racecourse at Wolverhampton. His Rover is waiting, as are children wearing the Wolverhampton junior team football strip. They present him with an orange Wolverhampton scarf. He declines the offer to take part in a Blair-style photo opportunity, heading the ball.
Next stop, a meeting about pensions at the town’s Age Concern office. On the wall is a notice: personal alarms available here £7.20. Above an empty shelf there is another sign which reads BOOK RUMMAGE, SEE A BOOK YOU LIKE AND MAKE US A DONATION (MINIMUM DONATION 20 PENCE). Hague nods as he listens to the grievances of the 20 or so pensioners who are sitting before him. On the street outside, an old woman walks past, returns and presses her face up against the window to see what all the fuss is about.
Amid flurries of snow, the helicopter next lands on the racecourse at Worcester. A taxi takes Hague and his party to the high street where blue-and-white KEEP THE POUND balloons are tethered to a stand. Local party workers carry KEEP THE POUND umbrellas and hand out KEEP THE POUND leaflets and mouse mats to passers-by. By the time Hague barrels over, wearing a brown waxed jacket, a sizeable crowd has formed and a cheer goes up as he jumps on to a table and grabs hold of a microphone. ‘I was listening to Tony Blair in the House of Commons the other day, and I could tell he wasn’t telling the truth because his lips were moving… ‘
‘He looks better in real life,’ a woman in a headscarf whispers to a farmer in a flat cap. A man with mutton chops says, ‘Isn’t that Seb Coe over there?’ There is a very English heckle from a tattooed youth at the back of the crowd: ‘Fascist!’ he shouts from behind his hand, then he dips out of sight and walks over to the other side of the crowd where, turning his back on the crowd, he gives a half-hearted boo. A middle-aged matriarch, presumably an example of the fabled ‘Worcester Woman’ who decides elections, tells me, ‘These politicians only bother to come round here when there’s an election. It’s the Queen I’m looking forward to. She’s coming next week.’
Earlier I’d asked Hague if he thought the people he met at these rallies were honest with him, or did they just tell him what he wanted to hear? ‘One of the great things about this country,’ he said with that distinctive crack in his voice, ‘is that wherever you go, people will tell you exactly what they think of you. Certainly my constituents do. I got a letter from one, which read, “I hope you can take some constructive criticisms on your speech. It was rubbish!” Very straightforward! I don’t sit at Central Office only being told good news or what I want to hear.’
After the rally, Hague mingles with the crowd, shaking hands and answering questions. He is then ushered into a small room in a nearby hotel. Local journalists stand in the corridor outside, waiting for their five minutes each. The local Tory candidate quickly briefs Hague on recent flooding in Worcester and the closure of a hospital in Kidderminster. A BBC Hereford & Worcester reporter asks Hague if he will be attempting to win the vote of Worcester Woman. ‘We want to appeal to Worcester people in general, men and women.’ Hague gives the same answer to the next two reporters, who ask the same question. A cheerful young man from the Worcester Evening News asks, ‘Would you be looking to put a hospital back in Kidderminster?’ Hague answers and the young man says, ‘Lovely. Now, can you give me a comment on foxhunting?… Lovely. And a comment on the flooding please… Lovely.’
Before the last reporter comes in, Hague asks Coe about developments in the first foot-and-mouth case, details of which emerged the previous day. He nods gravely as he hears the likely source is a Northumberland farm. Back at what they call the ‘War Room’ in London, Tim Yeo, the shadow agriculture spokesman, is about to make a statement to the Press Association about compensation for farmers. Hague issues instructions for Yeo to wait until after the Government’s press conference on the subject, which is due to take place in half an hour.
The Tory leader’s feeling at this stage is that there should be cross-party unity. As this crisis is being analysed, a woman from a local newspaper is ushered in. She asks Hague what he thinks of Worcester Woman. Lunch consists of sandwiches on the helicopter as Hague flies up to his constituency – Richmond, in North Yorkshire. He’ll be attending a local branch pie and pea supper there on Saturday night, but the rest of the weekend will be devoted to working on the Conservative Party manifesto – and going for his traditional Sunday walk with Ffion in Swaledale, where he says he feels much closer to God than he does in church.
‘On weekdays, I make sure I have private time with Ffion set aside,’ he tells me, ‘while preserving Sundays as a special day. We probably do quite a lot of work, but we do it at home and we get out for those walks.’ His Sunday is marred, though, by a report in one newspaper which claims that a year ago he was so depressed and disillusioned by splits and rows within his party that he considered resigning. Apparently, he confided this to his three lieutenants, one being Sebastian Coe. I ask Coe if the story is true. ‘It’s absolute rubbish,’ he says.
William Hague celebrated his 40th birthday early, so that it wouldn’t interfere with his election campaigning. He blew out the candles on his cake, watched by Ffion and 100 friends and family at a North Yorkshire hotel. His constituency staff presented him with a broom to ‘sweep away Labour’. On his actual birthday, 26 March, he and Ffion will probably go out for supper together at a pub. I ask him if he regards his 40th birthday as a time for taking stock of his life? He smiles. ‘Very worrying isn’t it? I think it will be a time of intense activity. I don’t feel any older.’
The strange thing about Hague’s age is that he was going on 36 when he was 16 – the age he made his precocious speech at the 1977 Tory Party Conference. ‘It’s all right for yew,’ he said in his flat Yorkshire accent, grinning at Margaret Thatcher from beneath his blond fringe, ‘half of yew won’t be here in 30 or 40 years time, but I will be, and I want to be free.’
Laughter always seems to be just below the surface of William Hague. When he says something that amuses him, he punctuates his sentence with an almost inaudible snuffle – mm – the suppression of a laugh, a hint of satisfaction at what he is saying. When I put it to him that, though he regularly implies that he now hates that speech, he loves it really, he says: ‘Mm. No, I don’t hate it. I suppose I am quite proud of it. It’s a fun thing to recall. It wasn’t my intention to put myself on the map, I just thought I would get up and say what I thought and people would clap politely. Whatever I do in life, if I die at 90, people will still say, “He was the chap who gave that speech 74 years ago.” Mm.’
William Hague was born and raised in South Yorkshire in a suburb of Rotherham, where his family owned a lemonade factory, Hague’s Soft Drinks. He boarded at Ripon Grammar School, briefly – but felt homesick and ran away. His mother wanted him to return but his father relented and sent young William to the local comprehensive. By the age of 14, William had memorised every Parliamentary constituency, the name of its MP and the majority. Did he grow up a little too quickly? ‘It’s funny, but I feel in some senses I’ve got younger as I’ve got older. I now do more sport and I enjoy music more than I’ve ever done before, jazz mostly. But, in answer to your question, I think it was demonstrated by my friends who were interviewed for that Channel 4 documentary that I had a proper childhood. At school we had a great social mix, so it wasn’t a protected childhood in any way. My family is not like that. They think you should get to know the world, learn to look after yourself.’
That documentary, Just William… and Ffion, which was screened last autumn, also revealed Hague’s love of chocolate cake, the fact that he is colour-blind, and his father’s passion for go-karting around the garden. It was an endearing portrait of a straight-talking if mildly eccentric family. Although William’s father describes himself as ‘one of the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade’, he comes across as an amiable character, and William’s mother adds that the family was never really politically minded.
I ask Hague if he ever turns to his father for advice? ‘No. Then again, I usually don’t have to ask his opinion because I already know it.’ Coe, sitting within earshot, laughs at this and adds, ‘You don’t have to turn to William’s father for advice, he just gives it. In fact, it’s hard to stop him!’ William grins, ‘My father doesn’t expect me to act on his opinions, though. In fact he’d be horrified if I went out and did the things he suggests.’
The documentary also introduced Hague’s three older sisters to the world. Not only are they quick to criticise any signs of conceit in their brother but one revealed that her nickname for him was ‘Tory pig’. ‘That is what they are really like!’ William says when I ask him about them. He smiles, exposing his small, gappy teeth. ‘One gets mocked by sisters, but I’ve given them my fair share of mockery, too. Actually they are quite supportive.’
Is there a traditional Yorkshire reserve in his family, or are they all in touch with their emotions? ‘It depends what you mean. We don’t burst into tears every five minutes. But we are open. One of the reasons there are no grudges in our family is that if we are going to have an argument we have one.’
Who was the more dominant figure in the Hague household, his mother or father? ‘Neither, really. They are a great combination. Their expectations were never too high. I never felt under pressure and I never felt the need to win their approval. No one in my family – including my sisters – had been to university before me and that wasn’t a problem.’ Not only did Hague win a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, he achieved the treble of being President of the Conservative Association and the Oxford Union, as well as taking a first in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. His contemporaries there recall that he was a bit gauche but in his element when debating. As a student he combined reactionary beliefs (bring back the birch, and even the stocks) with progressive ones (a belief in an equal age of consent for homosexuals). After graduating, Hague worked as a management consultant for five years before his political career took off. He became an MP at 27, a minister at 31, and leader of the Tory Party at 36.
Hague has criticised Tony Blair for reinventing himself. Surely the same could be said of him. There is the urbane, metropolitan, liberal Hague, and the professional Northerner and skinhead who talks tough on asylum and drinks 14 pints. Which is closer to the truth? ‘Neither really. People always try to pigeonhole me but I’m just who I am. I don’t pretend to be anything different, and things I’ve said on law and order and on European issues would not be a surprise to anyone who has been following what I’ve been saying for years. I think it’s important to be tough. And I don’t think I’ve ever claimed to be metropolitan! I’m from Yorkshire!’
Wednesday Evening. An ambassadors’ reception at the Pimlico home of Richard Spring, MP. It isn’t quite the Ferrero Rocher occasion its title would suggest. Francis Maude, the shadow foreign affairs spokesman, is co-hosting a ‘thank-you drinks’ for the dozen or so ambassadors who have helped him on his trips abroad in the past couple of years. It’s a suits and wine occasion, rather than black tie and champagne. Hague comes straight from the House of Commons, where he has been listening to John Prescott’s statement on the day’s train crash at Selby. He apologises for being late and explains that Selby is on the border of his constituency, so the crash was of particular concern to him. The ambassadors, who form a circle around him, are keen to quiz him about Europe.
He says a few words of thanks and promises not to keep them from the Spain-England football match, which is just about to start. ‘It’s only a friendly,’ one of the ambassadors shouts from the back. ‘That’s what you think!’ Hague replies. Everyone laughs. From here, Hague is driven to a reception at the Albemarle Gallery, just off Piccadilly, where there is a Conservative Party fund-raising art exhibition. En route he collects Ffion from her office; when they arrive, they are greeted by a blinding wall of flashbulbs. Ffion, all blonde, Welsh and smiley, is wearing loopy gold earrings, a grey polo-neck, and a black frock coat.
As I make a mental note of this, I recall something Hague once said: ‘It’s funny, we often go to places, political events, where I know people are going to pay far more attention to what Ffion is wearing than to what I’m saying. But that’s OK. Because I would, too. And I like it. Because she is beautiful. She is fantastic.’ And she is, of course, the Conservatives’ not-so-secret weapon. The schoolboy Hague once declared that he wouldn’t get engaged until he became a Cabinet minister, and he was true to his word.
He met Ffion Jenkins, the Oxford-educated daughter of the chief executive of the Arts Council of Wales, on his first day as Secretary of State for Wales. She was his private secretary. Her nickname, he learnt, was ‘Jolly’. He proposed to Jolly in the Black Bull at Malton, North Yorkshire, and now sightseers go to see the table there. After mingling at the reception for a respectable time, William and Ffion slip away with Seb and Nicola Coe to a nearby jazz club. Nice.
Like his newfound interest in sport, Hague’s interest in jazz – Miles Davis and Scott Hamilton are his favourites – is presumably inspired by Coe, who is something of a jazz expert. Either way, it’s an improvement on Meat Loaf. I ask Hague if he feels transported when he listens to jazz. Is it a balm for his nerves? ‘I listen to jazz to enjoy myself,’ he says, ‘not to burst into tears.’
Hague is easy company, he’s self-effacing, too, but the main impression one gets is that, as he puts it, he enjoys himself and doesn’t seem to take political brickbats personally. As he once said, ‘People have to be able to poke fun at politicians. You can’t be over-sensitive. You have to have a sense of the ridiculous.’ Some might see this as a weakness. Indeed, Blair has dismissed Hague as ‘good at jokes, no good at policy’. Certainly I think Hague uses humour to deflect crises. But I also saw his sober and statesmanlike side, not to mention the determination and ambition lurking beneath his sanguine personality.
Blair has also attempted to portray Hague as a weird and freakish leader of a dysfunctional racist sect. I think this characterisation misses the point. An eccentric, as defined by the neuropsychologist Dr David Weeks, is a highly intelligent person who is exceptionally healthy and remarkably free from stress. He is, moreover, single-minded, affable, self-possessed and blithely indifferent to criticism. And this, as a definition of Hague, seems much closer to the mark. He hasn’t always been sure-footed as a leader – the reversals of policy, the decision to back Jeffrey Archer for Mayor of London, wearing a Hague baseball cap while going down a water ride at a theme park – but he has shown an ability to think on his feet and a decisiveness that his predecessor lacked.
I ask Hague how he would describe himself. ‘Determined. Strong views. I’m combative. Happy to have a fight. Don’t run away from a fight.’ He has no insecurities, he adds. Doesn’t feel vulnerable. Is he introspective? ‘No, I don’t brood on difficulties. I don’t have regrets.’ So he doesn’t regret, for instance, backing Jeffrey Archer?
‘Obviously I wish we had done that differently. But, no, I don’t brood on that. I can’t do anything about it now, unless one day Jeffrey Archer wants to run for Mayor of London again, in which case I shall know what to do.’ Everyone I talk to about Hague seems to have a different take on him. But one characterisation on which all can agree is that he is unflappable. There is a stillness to him.
He is, as the modern jargon has it, centred. Is this, I ask him, just for public consumption? Does he fly into rages in private? ‘No, I don’t think any of my staff have seen me fly into a rage. I am naturally like this. But I also think to get the best out of people the man at the top has to have an even temperament and an optimistic outlook. There is good news and bad good news. And, actually, when you sit down at the end of the day, the world isn’t that different from how it was at the beginning. Mm.’
The Conservatives lost the 2001 general election. After announcing his decision to resign as leader, a few hours after the extent of Tony Blair’s landslide victory became apparent, Hague went back inside Central Office to thank his campaign workers. He had tears in his eyes.