After a year of gaffes, Hague celebrates with a day in bed

Hague, a year on: in an age of soundbites and snapshots, the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition didn't quite get it right
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The Independent Online
HE HAS been described, variously, as a foetus, a squit, a lightweight and a prat. The political party he leads once spelt his name as William Haguz. He travelled down a waterslide in Cornwall wearing a baseball cap with his surname on it in large white letters.

He attended the country's coolest outdoor festival amid a fanfare of publicity - a skinny, bald middle-aged-looking bloke surrounded by men and women who make Sid Vicious look bland. And he married a woman so charismatic and curvy that the contrast made calling him a squit an insult to amoebas everywhere.

He is, in other words, a fairly typical English bloke. He'd make a great dentist, a good branch manager of Rymans or a building society assistant manager.

But this man is Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition and the potential prime minister of the United Kingdom, and this week he celebrates a year of being the number one of the party that was just a landslide election away from staying in power.

In typical Hague form, in the attempt to celebrate his anniversary something had to go wrong. Instead of making a grand tour of his native Yorkshire and dropping in at a Lincolnshire school, the leader was, a Conservative party spokesman said, ill, and spending the day at home in bed.

It is not William Hague's fault that he doesn't look like a potential prime minister. Most men go bald, his height can't be helped, and as for being slim - well, what's wrong with that, exactly?

But Mr Hague's first year has been riddled with gaffes, blunders and chunks of sheer lucklessness that mean he is even less prime ministerial now than he was when "William Who?" was elected to lead the Tories on 19 June, 1997.

Last August, Mr Hague's version of Alastair Campbell, chief Tory spinfuhrer Alan Duncan, arranged for his boss to visit a theme park in Cornwall. The setting was perfect for a man wanting to woo Middle England: a typically jolly watersports centre in Middle England's most traditional summertime playground.

The leader would pose for pictures while barrelling down a waterslide - perhaps not the ideal stunt for a 36-year-old desperate to win the respect of the grandees of the Carlton Club, but certainly something designed to entertain the non-existent Tory youth vote.

Mr Hague looked relaxed and happy as he shot down the chute, trying to project an image almost everyone who knows him insists is the true William: intelligent, confident and mature. This, after all, was the boy who lectured the Tory Party conference on "rolling back the state" when he was just 16.

Unfortunately, the pictures conveyed a different image. Just who decided that wearing baseball caps (the right way round) with HAGUE written on them was "in", has remained a mystery. Perhaps Mr Duncan wanted to capture the young black vote, but someone failed to tell him homeboys don't wear caps with SMITH pasted on them.

There was one more attempt to be cool. Nobody can deny a Tory leader the right to attend any sort of legal entertainment he wants. But to summon the press to the Notting Hill Carnival was asking for trouble; like Tony Blair asking photographers to capture a meeting with the North Yorkshire Unreconstructed Socialists' Association. Mr Hague was seen surrounded by thousands of healthy, tanned, tough, colourful bodies.

His fiancee, Ffion, carried it off: she is more Welsh than him, cooler, more fun. William, with his delighted grin, looked the dorky boy in the class who has his first can of Heldenbrau and then careens down to the rave club thinking he is Liam Gallagher. There was an attempted remedy in Ffion's appearance in a clinging dress two months later, but Mr Hague's spin doctors (who on the evidence appear to be more spin quacks, and should be struck off by the BMA) rather ruined it (again) by comparing her to Liz Hurley. The British people know Liz Hurley, and Ffion is no Liz Hurley.

Mr Hague's other gaffes were fairly minimal by the standards of British politics, but the poor man seems to suffer even when other people make gaffes when talking about him. Earlier this year, Labour's sports minister, Tony Banks, called his honourable friend a foetus and implied he should have been aborted; although Banks was reprimanded by Tony Blair, his comment stuck.

Mr Hague's problems may be terminal. The Independent contacted Max Clifford, the swashbuckling and shameless spin surgeon, to see how he would ensure that in his second year Mr Hague would have more gravitas, nous and dignity, and less, er, squitness, than in his first.

There was silence as the normally garrulous Mr Clifford plunged into contemplation. He admitted he was nonplussed. "Um. It's very difficult." He threw the question out to his entire office. Three PR people descended into silence (possibly the only time so far Mr Hague can claim truly to have made history).

Ten minutes later Mr Clifford called back. "Yes, I've got it," he said. He pronounced the only course of action for the Leader of the Opposition.

"He has to have had an affair, with someone beautiful, intelligent and respected, who sells the story to the papers. Gwyneth Paltrow, that's it. She has to tell the Daily Mail that she was drawn to him by his sheer physical presence, his animal magnetism, and his power. Since he left her," - before, Mr Clifford adds, he met Ffion - "no man measures up. She is destroyed."

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