William Hague was just 16 when he addressed his first Conservative Party conference. Now 40 years on he’s preparing to leave frontline politics. Sarah Freeman reports.
When the late Tony Benn announced he was retiring after 51 years as a Labour MP, he said it was to “spend more time on politics”.
As news of William Hague’s unexpected departure from the frontbench spread on social media, one bright spark speculated the former Conservative leader had gone to “spend more time on log flumes”.
Ah that log flume, which along with that baseball cap and that boast to a men’s magazine that he’d regularly downed 14 pints a day while delivering soft drinks around South Yorkshire as a teenager, did for Hague for a while.
Prime fodder for satirical cartoonists, his wasn’t an easy Tory leadership. When he took the helm in 1997 the strains of Things Can Only Get Better, New Labour’s unofficial election anthem, were still echoing through Conservative HQ. It was a lonely place to be. Michael Portillo... Malcolm Rifkind... Edwina Currie... David Mellor... in one humiliating night, 18 years of Conservative rule had been unceremoniously swept away.
In the face of Cool Britannia, when the likes of Noel Gallagher and Helen Mirren were drinking champagne with Tony Blair, Hague looked too straight, too buttoned-up for this new era of self-confidence. And if he ever thought he might be able to forge a new future for the party there was always someone with that footage from the 1977 Tory party conference to hand.
Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe might have given the precocious teenager, who in an unmistakable Yorkshire accent announced, “It’s all right for you. You won’t be here in 30 or 40 years time,” a standing ovation, but 20 years on, Hague looked like a politician from a different age, one out of touch with modern Britain.
While he struggled with his self-image, Hague wasn’t in fact cut from quite the same cloth as most of his peers. He was born in Rotherham on March 26, 1961 to a relatively modest family. His parents ran the soft drinks company where he worked during the holidays and after a spell at Ripon Grammar he completed his education at Wath-on-Dearne Comprehensive. Academically bright, he secured a place at Magdalen College Oxford to study PPE and it was there his political ambitions blossomed, becoming president of the Oxford Union, a traditional springboard into Westminster.
After Oxford came the noted French business school INSEAD and spells working for Shell and management consultants McKinsey, but Hague was always destined to return to his first love. Standing in the 1987 general election in the Labour stronghold of Wentworth, close to his family home, he barely registered with the electorate, but within two years he had a seat in Parliament after winning a by-election in the ultra Conservative seat of Richmond in North Yorkshire.
Under then leader John Major, Hague rose quickly through the ministerial ranks, entering the Cabinet as Welsh Secretary in 1995 - a posting where he met his future wife, civil servant Ffion Jenkins. In hindsight, as Major’s government imploded, he might have wished he’d gently applied the breaks on his own political career. Had he kept in the background for just a few more years and allowed someone else to take the full force of the New Labour juggernaut, things might have worked out differently.
As it was, it was Hague who became leader aged just 36 and while he might have scored a few verbal victories over Blair at Prime Minister’s questions, it wasn’t enough. Splits in the Conservative party over Europe and relentless speculation over his leadership fatally undermined his tenure.
By the time of the next general election in 2001, Hague’s baby face looked drained and the Conservative campaign - fought on an anti-euro platform with the Save the Pound slogan - looked similarly tired. By the time all the votes were counted, Labour’s thumping 179 seat majority had been cut by just 12.
Setting an unfortunate precedent as the first Conservative leader not to become prime minister, Hague announced he was stepping down. It had hardly been an auspicious spell in charge and for a while it seemed he would be best remembered as the butt of some pretty cruel jokes - Labour’s Tony Banks had once memorably described him as a “foetus”.
However, his resignation speech in which he said, “No man is indispensable. No man is more important than the party,” was not only widely praised, but it was arguably the beginning of Hague’s rebirth.
Once freed from the thankless task of leading a party at war with itself, Hague looked more comfortable with himself and his politics and the wit he’d shown on the floor of the House soon began earning him a lucrative income as an after-dinner speaker.
While his harshest critics couldn’t quite believe the man being inundated with offers of directorships, was the same once whose nasal drawl had been a god’s gift to impressionists, Hague’s political rehabilitation was as swift as his demise. With an income hovering at around £1m a year, he was ranked as the country’s best-paid MP, his earnings swelled by award-winning biographies of fellow prodigy Pitt the Younger rand William Wilberforce.
Learning to play the piano, he seemed to be enjoying the quiet life when politics came knocking again.David Cameron must have been at his persuasive best to convince Hague to return to the bear pit after his earlier bruising. However, in 2005, Hague was announced as shadow Foreign Secretary.
He proved a safe pair of hands and as many MPs found themselves embroiled in the expenses scandal, Hague, while ordered to repay £600 in mortgage interest claims, emerged relatively unscathed. However, a bigger scandal was waiting. Just as the 2010 general election campaign was firing into life, a deal struck a decade earlier came back to the haunt the Tories.
Hague had fought hard to secure a life peerage for Michael Ashcroft, the billionaire donor who had saved the party from its wilderness years after 1997. Despite being rebuffed by the House of Lords vetting panel, which cited the tycoon’s position as a tax exile in Belize, the nomination was resubmitted in 2000, backed by a written assurance from Ashcroft who said the treasury would receive tens of millions of pounds a year in tax.
The revelation that Lord Ashcroft had quietly altered his undertaking and was in fact enjoying “non-dom” tax status was disastrous for the Tories who were trying to focus voters’ attention on Labour’s reliance on union funding. The scandal did die down and when the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition finally assumed office after six tortuous days of negotiations, Hague was confirmed as Foreign Secretary.
Less than four months into the post came arguably the most curious incident of his entire career when he issued an extraordinary personal statement to counter internet rumours about his relationship with special advisor Christopher Myers. In it he admitted they occasionally shared twin hotel rooms, but denied they’d had an “improper” relationship and insisted his marriage was secure. In wake of intense speculation, Hague, who has always fiercely guarded his privacy, also revealed his wife had suffered a number of miscarriages as they tried to start a family.
Otherwise, his has been an assured presence in the foreign office, particularly in the face of events in Syria. Just last month he co-chaired a conference to combat sexual violence in war zones with Angelina Jolie. Hague might not have quite looked like one of the Hollywood A-list, but he now undoubtedly has the gravitas he lacked when he first captained the Conservative ship.