The oldest kid in town

As a teenager he read Hansard and hung Margaret Thatcher posters on his bedroom wall. At 38, William Hague is looking about as electable as Val Doonican
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The Independent Culture
The first thing you notice about William Hague - leader of what opposition there is, which maybe isn't much - is his forehead. In fact, you couldn't not notice his forehead. His face is, actually, more forehead than face. His face is a child's scribble of a face drawn very low down on a peakily off-white egg. It is a sensational forehead. And, certainly, the sort of forehead that brings out the mischief in you. The sort of forehead you want to put a big, naughty, scarlet lipstick kiss on and hope he doesn't notice for the rest of the afternoon. Still, I resist. Sebastian Coe is with us, yes. And I'm not especially confident of my chances should he choose to chase me out. I once foolishly ran for a bus in 1974, and my leg still hurts. He wouldn't need 400m to get me. Just the one would do it.

Still, Coe - the former Olympic gold winner, now Hague's chief of staff - seems, thankfully, to be firmly seated today. We are in William's office at the House of Commons. Coe is sitting to the left of me at this big, long, shiny table. Gregor Mackay, Hague's head of press, is sitting to the right. William sits opposite. It all feels rather like an effortful prison visit. "Don't worry, Bill. We'll get you out. Um... feeding you well, are they?" William is wearing a blue tie and stripy shirt and jokey ace- of-hearts and ace-of-clubs cufflinks. A present from Ffion, he explains. "One of many presents from Ffion," he adds. And do you buy her presents? I ask. "Oh yes," he says. Like what? "I buy her a lot of private presents," he says. He married Ffion - whom he first met when he was Welsh Secretary and she was his private secretary - last December. She is still teaching him how to speak Welsh, yes. "And I very much enjoy learning it."

I say I've always thought the Welsh actually make up their language as they go along, just to annoy the English. "Here comes an Englishman! Quick, everyone, go `Llwynllygddgoch Y ddchllyogog'!" William and Sebastian look at each other in quite a panicky, perplexed way. Gregor laughs. Gregor, as it turns out, is sacked by Hague the next morning (and replaced by the ex-tabloid editor Amanda Platell). This is a shame, I think, because as far as awkward prison visits go, Gregor seems to be quite a cheerful person to have around. William finally says: "I can assure you, the Welsh language is very real. I can understand traffic signs now. And the names of household items." Coe nods in a seriously confirming kind of way. William adds: "The oldest relic of the Welsh language - `Y Gododdin' - was actually written where Ffion and I now live in Yorkshire. It's a Welsh poem from the sixth century, written by a tribe who spoke Welsh but lived in Yorkshire. So the Welsh language is now being learned where the oldest surviving sample comes from!" I am minded to come back at him with: "Llygogddchykkagogo" which, I think, is Welsh for: "Golly, that's so interesting!" But feel we just haven't quite bonded sufficiently yet.

The spookiest thing about William Hague, I suppose, is that he and I are almost exactly the same age - "although you look much younger," he insists. I'm not sure, actually, that this is entirely true. It's just that while I may look 38 now, William has possibly always looked 38. He may, even, have always been 38. I don't know this for sure, but would guess he was the sort of child who, say, wanted a Corby Trouser Press for his birthday rather than a Spacehopper. And all subsequent attempts to look youthful - baseball caps turned backwards, coconut cocktails at Notting Hill - have only served to make him look faintly absurd. I wonder, genuinely, whether we have any cultural references in common. "Tell me, William, did you ever have a crush on David Essex?"

"I can assure you I did not."

"Did you ever shoplift hot-pants or halter-neck tops from Biba?"

"NO!"

"Partridge Family?"

"I liked Blue Peter."

"What's your favourite Abba song?"

"Now, let me see... um... um. Can't think of one."

I think if there is a certain something that holds William Hague back - both as saviour of the Tory Party and as a possible future prime minister - it might be the fact he can't name an Abba song. I mean, what was he doing in the Seventies? Aside, that is, from precociously addressing the Tory Party conference in 1977, at just 16. Where was - or is - his life? Where are those bits that tend to make people all-round beings? Perhaps, now I think about it, most find it hard to relate to William Hague because there is, actually, very little to relate to on a kind of human level. And if most can't relate to a party's leader, how can they relate to the party?

Certainly, the Conservative Party is in crisis. Indeed, it currently limps in the polls below its dismal share of the vote in the last election. Plus, apparently, Hague is proving to be one of the most unpopular political leaders in history. For each resounding PR triumph of the Blair Government, we have a Hague PR disaster - his off-key comments after Diana's death, the Lord Cranborne business, that weekend bonding exercise with Tory seniors who, in their woolly, diamond-patterned pullovers, looked about as electable as Val Doonican. Mamma Mia!, as a certain Swedish pop group might have concluded. Hague, however, naturally won't have it. "You have to look behind the opinion polls," he argues. "People are just beginning to be ready to listen to us again. When our canvassers go knocking on doors, they're not chased down garden paths any more... We're on the up, not the down... the question now is how far I can accelerate things... Labour took 14 years to rewrite their rulebook and we've

done all that in a year... one member, one vote... that's a revolution!" He can go on endlessly on these positive tramlines. I think the tramlines might have, at some point, rather driven the person out of him.

What, I ask, about rumours that a large chunk of the parliamentary party is just waiting for the right moment to strike in favour of their lost leader, Ken Clarke? "Hah!" he exclaims. "Anyone who says that is not very well informed about the parliamentary party. I get tremendous support from the MPs. They cheer me on." OK, what if the party does very badly in the forthcoming local elections in May, then the European ones in June? "I would have to keep on fighting. People should not underestimate how much I was brought up to fight. Sometimes, people have looked at my career and they think it's been an easy progression, but actually I've had to fight very hard. To become MP for Richmond in Yorkshire (which he did in 1989) I had to fight 360 other people for the nomination. I remember when everyone said Mrs Thatcher couldn't be prime minister. She wasn't strong enough, they said. A woman couldn't do it. That all turned out to be complete hogwash."

He is still great friends with Thatcher, yes. "But then, I'm in an unusually fortunate position in that I get on very well with all the former leaders of the party." In that case, why did you make them sit on horrid Ikea chairs? "It's because I get on with them so well that I could make them sit on Ikea chairs," he says. Have you ever been to Ikea? "Yes. In Gateshead once, I think. I got some candlesticks." I say I once bought a bathroom cabinet from Ikea which took me six hours to assemble upside down. William says: "Why did you want it upside down?" Gregor says he once bought a wardrobe from Ikea that took weeks to assemble. Sebastian and William exchange further perplexed glances.

I don't doubt William Hague is clever. He is said to be good at the dispatch box, too. But as politics becomes increasingly like show business you do, I think, have to have a certain "star quality" to achieve at the highest level. You can be a truly good actor, but if you can't carry a movie you've pretty much had it. And I'm not sure Hague can carry a movie. He might not even be able to carry a Scout jamboree. How does he, I wonder, react to claims that he lacks charisma? He says: "To the 200,000 people extra people waiting to be on the waiting-list at hospitals, charisma is not worth a ha'penny." That's a rather naive assertion, isn't it? "No. In the end, politicians will be judged on what they do." I think even most Tories accept William Hague will never be prime minister. He, however, does not: "My objective," he says, "is to bring this party back to power."

William Jefferson Hague was born and brought up in Rotherham, south Yorkshire. His father, Nigel, ran the family's fizzy drinks business, which manufactured lemonade, cherryade, bitter lemon, mixers, limeade and Hague's Cola which, sadly, never really took on Coca-Cola. "We never quite penetrated that market," admits William. He was, he continues, brought up in a very Tory atmosphere. "My family did not discuss politics with a capital P but, because we ran a small business, I did learn a certain hostility towards bureaucratic interference and over-taxation."

As a boy, it appears what he loved most were his toy soldiers, although he didn't play with them in the normal, chaotic way. He amassed hundreds of Airfix model soldiers, which he would arrange in tableaux of real battles from the Second World War or Napoleonic period. In a sense, I suppose, he, too, had his "My my! At Waterloo / Napoleon did surrender", although it wasn't in the usual teenage way. He thought, actually, he might join the military but then, at 14, he suddenly became obsessed with politics. Why? "Living where I did, at the time when I did... I grew up in a very Labour-dominated, industrial area, when the country was being made desperate by three-day weeks, trade union power and rising unemployment. If you were going to be interested in politics, then this was a time when events were going on in the world to arouse your interest."

His interest was certainly aroused. He ordered Hansard from his local newsagent. He never owned "Super Trouper", but did have quite a few LPs of great Tory speakers. He sat up in bed at night, reading parliamentary reports. He could recite not only every MP and their constituency, but also the majority and swing needed to unseat them. He had posters of Margaret Thatcher on his bedroom wall. His mother bought him membership of the party for his 15th birthday. So this, yes, is what William was doing in the Seventies. William, wasn't this all a bit... well, weird? "No. A lot of teenagers do get very interested in particular things. A lot write to me who have the same interests I had."

Still, I'm determined to find something we might have in common.

"Top of the Pops"?

"No."

"Captain Poldark?"

"No."

"That had Angharad Rees in it," Coe announces suddenly.

"Yes, it did," I say encouragingly. "She was Demelza, and I can remember her first words: `Drop my knickers for a shillin', I will.'"

"I don't remember that part," says Coe.

"I liked Emmerdale," concludes William.

So where is that life of his? Do you ever watch telly now? "I like Frasier. Ffion always tapes Friends." Books? "Military history and political biographies." Can you cook? "I can chop. I'm good at doing the leeks and carrots and stuff that like." Enjoy a smoke? "A cigar every now and then. I like to have a cigar on holiday." Children soon? "Hopefully. Who knows? Shortly. At some stage." Are you ever visited by the Churchillian black dog? "No. I enjoy the great majority of my days. I've read articles saying this is a terrible time for William Hague, while I'm enjoying thinking what I'm thinking about, or having a beer, and I think: is this really a terrible time for me?"

Anyway, time to go. I've had 45 minutes, which isn't much time, I know, but is usually enough time to meet somebody. The great thing about William Hague, I think, is that you can meet him and not truly feel you've met anybody. Or, as they say in Wales: "Ggddwllddygochogo" which, loosely translated, means: "Never run for a bus when you can take a taxi."

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