How we raced against the headlines to get Tory Party off starting blocks

Ex-Tory leader William Haque, with Lord Coe
Ex-Tory leader William Haque, with Lord Coe
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In an extract from his autobiography, Sebastian Coe looks back at his political life as aide to William Hague when the Tory party was in turmoil.

WILLIAM Hague and Ffion Jenkins met in 1995 when he was Minister of State at the Welsh Office, where she had worked for him and famously taught him the Welsh national anthem.

They married on December 19, 1997, in the crypt below Westminster Hall. Above us, in the House of Commons, parliament was still sitting.

Also in session, although the bridegroom didn’t know, were our auditors in the final stages of authorising the Conservative Party’s accounts. A collective decision had been taken not to tell him this was happening. It was a wedding present he didn’t need and it wasn’t as if there was anything he could have done. There was a real risk that the party could go under before Christmas, and the fact remains that William could have returned from honeymoon as leader of a party that had ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, that other Westminster honeymoon – the ceasefire traditionally accorded to a new administration – showed no signs of losing its bloom, and Tony Blair’s personal star continued to rise. One reason was the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast. Blair claimed to have felt “the hand of destiny” on his shoulder, but little mention was ever made of the role played by John Major in earlier negotiations, which made it all possible. Party-political point scoring would have been entirely inappropriate, but in terms of William’s or the party’s visibility, it did not help.

The 1998 party conference was held in Bournemouth. The first evening was always given over to the party’s agents – the only non-volunteers in local associations – when they would be addressed by senior members of the Cabinet, now the Shadow Cabinet, and the leader. We were roughly halfway through the speeches when I was called by the press office. The Sun was putting William on the front page in the guise of an upside-down parrot, hanging from a perch, echoing the famous Monty Python sketch, the text taking up the entire front page: “This party is no more ... it has ceased to be ... this is an EX-party.”

“Everything all right?” asked John Major when I’d finished the call, having seen me looking a little wan. So I explained. “But that’s completely outrageous,” he said. “Are you sure? Who did you hear it from? Well, one thing’s clear. You have to tell him.”

By this time I was beginning to get the measure of William. If I did decide to say something, it certainly wouldn’t de-rail him, but in the end, I decided to wait, and for the record, his reaction when he saw the parrot next morning was to laugh. I told him I wasn’t sure the party membership or 
our donors would find it quite 
so funny.

John Major always remained very fond of William – not least because William was to some extent his protégé. John had made him the youngest member of Cabinet since Harold Wilson. For his part, William was always grateful for the platform Major had given him.

Relations between Margaret Thatcher and her predecessor Sir Edward Heath were not as cordial. In fact, they were toxic. With party unity high on the agenda, it was decided that having both former PMs on same platform would send out a clear message. Both were well past retirement age – Heath was 80 – and in a combined comfort-plus-money-saving exercise, we bought some chairs from Ikea. It turned into another PR disaster when we were pilloried for appearing to ape Labour’s Cool Britannia. Meanwhile, during the debate on Europe the cameras did not lie. They showed Margaret and Ted sitting in identical blue bucket chairs, either asleep or, when awake, refusing to look at each other.

For the entire four years I worked with William, fundraising was never off the agenda and following the conference, somebody suggested auctioning the chairs. Owning the chair that Margaret Thatcher had once sat in might have an appeal to a certain kind of party activist it was thought. I have no idea how much money was raised, but they all went, notably one to Elizabeth Stevenson, scion of the powerful Stevenson family who ran most of the trawlers out of St Ives. But it was not about to become a family heirloom. Instead, she and her fellow anti-Europeans assembled on the quayside and with great ceremony set it alight, although not before strapping in an effigy of Edward Heath. The whole episode was filmed and then broadcast by BBC South West television. No surprises who delivered this piece of news from the front line.

William’s resilience to adversity was almost superhuman. He has the original of a Times cartoon showing a series of outline drawings of his head, captioned “Hague Happy”, “Hague Furious”, “Hague Irritated” and so on, each one of them identical. And like many good caricatures, there was some truth there. William had an in-built imperturbability which was fireproof. Only once in the four years I worked with him did I see a chink in that armour. It was mid-April 1999 and we were heading for Liverpool for a day’s campaigning.

The previous evening Peter Lilley, William’s deputy and head of policy, had given a speech at the Carlton Club, the RA Butler memorial lecture, which the party were using as a platform for Conservative policy reform. William had, naturally, read the speech but not, it transpired, the final draft. The next morning it was headline news: “Lilley urges privatisation re-think, Lilley knocks up the first plank in the Tory life raft”. The tabloids were content with the simpler: “End of Thatcherism”.

The next few days would be marked by real anger, with calls for either Lilley’s resignation or William’s, or as the press put it, “Tory Party in Mutiny”. In a speech a few days later, William repudiated the idea that he was abandoning Margaret Thatcher’s free-market policies, but acknowledged there was an argument for some degree of brand decontamination.

May 1997 had been a watershed and it would be foolish not to recognise it. Peter Lilley’s speech was a departure, and would prove the first step on a journey that would eventually take David Cameron to Downing Street.

I remember standing in Battersea heliport that morning, waiting for the fog to lift so that we could get going to Liverpool, and for the first time seeing William despondent. I told him: “Look there’s nothing you can do now. Just punch on through and deal with it tomorrow.”

For two years he had worked tirelessly to jolt the party into some semblance of an opposition, but it was like trying to inflate a hot-air balloon with a bicycle pump. As we headed for for Liverpool. I felt his mood lighten. Delayed by the fog, we were running late and immediately on landing we went straight into a press huddle where there was a northern stringer from the Daily Express.

I can’t remember his question, but I will never forget Williams’ answer. “In the 20 years I’ve been in politics, that is probably the most stupid question I have ever been asked,” he replied And then everyone began to laugh.

Going north in William’s company was always a tonic. He grew up midway between Barnsley and Rotherham. His constituency is in Richmond, and on the train, when we hit Peterborough, the change was palpable. From then on, every mile north you could feel him unwind. If William had a weakness, it was his lack of interest in popular culture.

“You should try to be more normal, William,” the media people around him would say.

“Meaning?”

“It would help if you knew what was happening on Brookside, for example.”

“Why?”

“Because people will think it’s normal.”

“But I am not normal. I want to be their prime minister. That’s not normal. What value or quality do I bring to people’s lives by knowing what’s happening on Brookside or EastEnders? That’s not what they’re voting for.”

Sebastian Coe is donating the fee for this serialisation to Progressive Supranuclear Palsy Association, www.pspassociation.org.uk

A fast track to politics

Sebastian Coe was born in London, but grew up in Sheffield. His love of sport was ignited when he joined the Hallamshire Harriers. Excelling at middle-distance running, he went onto win four Olympic medals.

After retiring from the track he moved into politics and was elected Conservative MP for Falmouth and Camborne. He lost his seat in the Labour landslide of 1997, but was appointed chief of staff by William Hague and was later awarded a life peerage.

Running My Life: The Autobiography by Seb Coe is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price £20. He will be signing copies at Waterstones in Sheffield on November 13 from 5pm to 7pm. Signed copies can be reserved by calling 0114 272 8971.