william hagueOn 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.


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.