At 36, William Hague is a front-runner in the race for the Tory leaders hip. But, still, few people know much about him, or his beliefs. Here, he talks frankly about hi s life
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William Hague is so likeable and unassuming it is hard to understand how he has got so far, and I got the impression he was a little foxed by it himself. He claimed his career plan - insofar as he had one - was to become an MP in his early thirties, so presumably he should now have been looking to become a shadow junior minister, rather than leader of the Tory party and possibly our next Prime Minister.

We met in a conference room in his campaign headquarters in Stafford Place, Victoria, where his bushy-tailed good humour reminded me of an obliging Labrador. By the same token, his staff resembled a pack of sheep dogs, racing round with mobile phones and narrowed eyes. This contrast was particularly evident during the picture session, in which Hague restricted himself to modest queries - such as "Do I look like a human being?" - while his advisers circled round scrutinising camera angles and intervening if they thought the results would make Hague look snooty.

In fact he looked glowingly clean and scrubbed, his head shining in the light. He wears the sort of shoes I associate with earnest school leavers - black with little buckles on the side - but his voice is a great asset, so unexpectedly deep one is tempted to look for the ventriloquist. Since John Major's electoral defeat Hague has emerged as one of the two favourites (the other being Kenneth Clarke) in the race for the Tory leadership and he confirmed that he was "very happy" with the way it was going. But would he win? "Yes," he answered, smiling. Really? "Yes!"

For all his confidence Hague, now 36, does not resemble the 16-year-old boy who so memorably bollocked the Tory Party Conference in 1977. Then he was mesmerising. He had the self- possession of a 50-year-old, and the authority to match - even if he did make his peers want to throw up. "[The people] don't want to go to Callaghan's promised land, which must surely rank as the most abhorrent and miserable land that has ever been promised to the people of a nation state," he intoned, smiling cherubically at the spotlights. "It's all right for yew," he added in his flat Yorkshire accent as the camera panned to an amused Margaret Thatcher, "half of yew won't be here in 30 or 40 years' time! But I will be, and I want to be free!"

Now, however, he is less impressive. One is not struck by his charisma when one meets him, or hears him speak. I don't know if it is just time which has caused this deterioration, but the intervening 20 years appear to have seen a falling away in an instinctive talent. When I heard him address the party faithful three weeks ago for his leadership campaign he came across as more patronising than powerful. It seemed a far cry from the magic of 1977.

Having said that, Hague has made progress in other areas. He is a lot taller, and probably much nicer. He has gained a First in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford, where he was President of the Union. He has done a decent job as Welsh Secretary and met his Welsh wife-to-be, Ffion (pronounced Fee-on) Jenkins. His leadership campaign is motoring and, with the first ballot due on Tuesday, he could shortly become leader. Clearly there is no end to his energy, for as well as electioneering he is organising his and Ffion's nuptials for early next year, a traumatic experience in its own right for most couples.

Ffion, 29, is the daughter of Emyr Jenkins, the chief executive of the Arts Council of Wales, and is said to be a leading light in the Welsh upper class. She taught Hague the words to the Welsh national anthem when she was his private secretary at the Welsh Office, thus preventing him from making a fool of himself like his predecessor John Redwood - notoriously caught out on camera nodding his head foolishly to the tune. Their engagement has had the happy effect of squashing the rumours that Hague - unmarried at 36, and apparently with little in the way of a love-life - is gay. One paper said the odds of him becoming the party leader halved when they announced their engagement in March, but that figure is probably exaggerated.

I have to say Hague was a bit vague when it came to explaining why Ffion was his dream woman, not that one can read anything into this - he was just as bad at explaining why he would be a good Prime Minister. "Well," he said, "I've got on with her very well for a long time, and we've worked together, and I suppose not many husbands and wives have had the opportunity of actually working together, so we know each other pretty well, and we get on extremely well together. We have a lot of common interests but we have some different interests as well. We just, um, it's a difficult thing to define, as you know. When you meet the right person you know it and I think my wait to meet the right person has been justified."

See what I mean? One senses he is a bit at a loss when it comes to women, having so far concentrated on his career. During a photo-shoot they did for the Express on Sunday Ffion had to help him adopt a suitably moony pose ("Put your arm around my waist like this... Give me your other arm"), making one wonder who will wear the trousers. Were they planning a white wedding? "That all remains work to be done. But we'll make it into an appropriately memorable occasion, but I hope not too large a one." (This is honestly how he talks: his dialogue is as old-fashioned as John Major's.)

Would the happy day be in Wales? "Not necessarily. It could be. It could be in London, or it could be in Oxford, because we both went to Oxford. No presumption can be made about the location at the moment."

How boring not to reveal the details, but Hague said ruefully that some things should stay private (I can reveal that he will wear a wedding ring and proposed "a little before" pudding in a Yorkshire restaurant).

Was Ffion worried about the possibility of becoming First Lady? "I don't think it was an issue. We have a great advantage because Ffion was a private secretary for three years to a Cabinet Minister, two years of that to me, so she knows better than most people what public life is like. Of course, it's always been a possibility that that would mean one's partner gets thrust into public view as well. But we take decisions about things like that together. The decision to stand in this election was a joint decision. If she'd said no, then I wouldn't have stood."

Is that right? "That is certainly right. Oh yes. She had an absolute veto." Hague looked very firm as he made this rather astonishing statement. If she had said no, wouldn't it have been a terrible sacrifice for him? "Well, that is certainly - that's how we do business. How we make decisions. I think that to embark on something like this you have to know your partner wants to do it as well. And so I certainly would not have embarked on it if she had had reservations about it." And Hague set his jaw.

Gosh, lucky she didn't. But of course she knew what she was getting into - and Hague is a hell of a catch. How did she feel about the prospect of setting up home at 10 Downing Street in five years' time? Hague put on his serious face. "I think like anybody she has a mixture of excitement and apprehension. But we talk about it a lot together, and if that's what happens we are prepared for it together."

The meaner question, of course, is what Ffion makes of the rumours. But Hague says a little resignedly that the issue has not come up. "No. She knows me very well. She knows what I'm like." He remained very good-natured during all this, although he did retreat back in his chair and look a bit nervous.

How did he feel about the gossip himself - it was not very nice, surely? Hague smiled, tolerantly. "You just have to brush it off. I've had all sorts of rumours about me. That I've been married before. That I've got secret children somewhere. That I went to a totally different school than the one I went to." (He is very proud of having gone to a grammar-turned-comprehensive in Rotherham, where he grew up the son of a soft-drinks manufacturer.) "But after a while you've got to relax about these things. As long as you know you've nothing to be defensive about you don't have to worry," he added - looking uncomfortable.

So was he going to have children? "Well, that's a joint decision for obvious reasons. I think we will one day but not, er, imminently."

Was that because he wanted to concentrate on his career? "No! I think it's just taking life steady." How many children would he like eventually? "I don't know!" he groaned. "But I'd certainly like to have them one day!"

No doubt Ffion would too, although I suspect the truth is that relationships are low on his list of priorities. Hague once said he was drawn to strong women, which is revealing - was Ffion a strong woman? "She's a resilient personality. I've always found my... what I think of as my powerful ladies."

He laughed with a touch of embarrassment at this admission. So who were these powerful ladies? "Well, a lot of the people who've worked for me have been tough-minded ladies - there's nothing sexist in this, a lot of men have worked for me as well. And a lot of people in the Conservative party have encouraged me from a young age including, at the most senior level, Lady Thatcher. And, you know, the agent in my local constituency when I first got involved in politics, the people in the local branch, and very many people who have worked for me in my constituency. I think: `Thank Heavens they're on my side!'"

I imagine he does: more sheep dogs. But Hague was anxious to get away from the notion that he was some goodie-goodie surrounded by minders. In fact he said he had had a wide experience of life, at the management consultancy McKinsey, in industry at Shell, even during his holiday job delivering beer to working-men's clubs. "I've always enjoyed having a good few pints of beer. I can't claim when I was a student that I was a totally sober individual," he added rather sweetly.

Thank goodness for that - I'd almost thought he was a young fogey. Had he done anything really wild when he was at Oxford, like taking drugs? "No. No, I didn't, but I don't think that I ever would have based a decision not to on political grounds. I, er, enjoyed myself." Did he mean sexually? "Yes. I had my first girlfriend of long-standing at school, and our friendship stretched into my time at Oxford." They went out with each other? "Yes, yes! I don't think I had a lot of girlfriends at that time because she was my girlfriend."

I should hope not. How many other girlfriends had he had? "There are two or three." What would they say annoyed them about him? "They'd say he gets up too early in the morning! I'm pretty sure that's what they'd say! I'm a morning person (it might not look it this morning, because I took my fiancee out last night) but I feel I can get half the productive work of the day done before 10am. At McKinsey I used to get up at 5am." And did he still? "No. Now I get up at 6am."

HAGUE'S concern to prove he is a normal bloke extended to poo-pooing the widespread perception that he is only interested in politics. In fact, he said, he could imagine doing several other things for a living. "I could happily have carried on the career I was having in management at McKinsey, and I could very happily do one of two other things in life," he told me with a straight face. "A: be in business. B: write books, if it turned out I was good enough to do so."

This was a revelation. What kind of books? Novels? "Yes, novels or history. And I could happily organise outdoor expeditions for people. I could happily take people skiing in the winter and canoeing in the summer and lead a totally different kind of life."

Did he ever long to do that? "I don't regret doing what I'm doing, this is the thing I want to do most, but I don't lie awake at night thinking: `Oh my word, if I didn't do this there is nothing else I could do in life.'"

Did he have a career plan at an early age, like Michael Heseltine - when he decided to address the Tory Party Conference, for example? "Well, I knew I wanted to be an MP, although to actually stand in the end for Parliament I did give up what I hope was a promising career, an alternative career. I have always wanted to be, on balance, an MP. But I haven't been operating to any plan. I couldn't have planned to be an MP at 27. The Richmond by- election came up unexpectedly." (Hague took the North Yorkshire seat in 1989, in the last by-election the Tories won.)

Yes, I said, but you might have hoped to be an MP at that age without knowing exactly how it would come about.

"Well, whatever timetable I was working to, that was ahead of it. I had a notion I might become an MP in my early thirties, I think, but only a rough one, and of course I couldn't have planned being Secretary of State for Wales. I couldn't have planned on standing for leadership of the Conservative party, so I'm not a great believer in the masterplans of life."

But hadn't he ordered Hansard from his local newsagent at 12? "Not 12, no, not 12! I may have been 15 or so. I think in the end it never came from the local newsagents. I had to take out a subscription."

Is it true the newsagent didn't know what it was? At this Hague couldn't resist a giggle. "I think it is, yes - poor chap!"

Still, he had clearly been an extraordinary child, and perhaps a rather nerdy one, I suggested. But he was hurt by this. "I don't think so," he said. "You'll have to talk to my friends at school but I don't think they would have thought that at all. I think they would have thought I was one of the gang. I used to enjoy myself, go to parties, go swimming, go on school trips and holidays along with everybody else."

And had he, at that stage, had girlfriends? Hague gave me a look. "Well, er, from about 16, 17." Before that he wasn't interested in girls? "No, I was interested in them, but I hadn't quite caught up with them." This prompted an involuntary giggle from one of his advisers, who was scribbling down our conversation, and Hague blushed and laughed, too, in a rather put-upon fashion. "What does that mean?" I asked innocently, and Hague gave me another look. "I think you know what it means!"

SO WHAT will it mean if Hague does get the leadership and eventually, perhaps, the prime ministership? Who knows, ask his critics? They argue that Hague is an empty vessel who is very good at giving the impression of being all things to all men. He does have some views, though. For example, he is very anti-abortion, and very pro the death penalty. On the other hand, he voted to lower the homosexual age of consent to 16. He also wants the party to have more women MPs, although he doesn't believe in quotas. This mix of views, cynics might argue, is very convenient when it comes to getting votes from the left and right of the party.

Hague says he is anti-abortion because "to kill human beings in that way is an appalling thing. But I realise there are circumstances where exceptions can be made - where a woman's life is in danger, or after a rape."

What if a woman gets pregnant by a man who wants nothing to do with the baby? "Well, I don't think people should escape their responsibilities so easily." But men do, don't they? "One of the reasons we have got the Child Support Agency is to change the culture about that. The heart of my political belief is the belief in personal liberty, but with liberty must go responsibility." But you can't force people to bring up a child, can you? "But I don't think we should have systems or laws which encourage a culture of being able to escape responsibility."

Hmm. What did he make of Tony Blair? "Well, I respect him but I think there has been a dangerous arrogance in the first weeks in power - making the Bank of England independent without even consulting the Cabinet, changing Question Time to make it much more predictable without consulting the other parties, preparing social and constitutional legislation on devolution on committees, not on the floor of the House of Commons."

And how would you describe yourself, I asked? This simple question floored him completely. "I don't know how. How would you describe me?" I shook my head at him in amusement and he giggled hopelessly. "Um! I don't know! Open, if I had to choose a single word! I'm open to ideas, I'm open to people generally. I like being with people and listening to people - I think that's the heart of it!"

Why would he be a good Prime Minister? This one floored him, too (note to advisers: he'd better sort his answer out soon): "Well. I think, um, I think I've, um, I think I've got ability to be clear with people, to communicate with people, to carry them along with me. I think I've always tried to be good and hope I'm good at bringing out the best in other people... I also think I may be young but the things I've done and the places I've lived and the work I've done around the country have given me a very broad understanding of what life is like in Britain."

He then gave a quick resume of his life - growing up with miners' sons, meeting lots of different sorts of people at Oxford, going to business school in France, doing a very broad job at the Welsh Office, etc. His CV is so rocket-powered it inspired another question. What were his weaknesses? Hague recoiled in horror. "This sounds like a job interview! What are my weaknesses? I don't know: I don't have the time to do everything I want to do." And he laughed shamefacedly because, for a supposedly blokish kind of chap, that was a bit of a giveaway.