An alien on the 8am to Cardiff

It started with a slap in the face and ended with a nettle grasped: Jim White on young William Hague's first week in the Welsh Office
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It was not the start he might have wished for. On Monday afternoon, rising to address the House of Commons for the first time as a cabinet minister, William Hague was confronted, in the cockpit of British democracy, on this the biggest day of his political life, by no one. No one, that is, except Dennis Skinner, there by force of habit, lounging across the corner seat opposite him. Otherwise the Labour benches were emptier than a politician's promise. And the thing was, as he laid his file down on the dispatch box for the first time and addressed the swathes of unoccupied green leather, William Hague knew that this was entirely personal. The reason that Labour, Liberal and Plaid Cymru MPs weren't there was that he was.

"This is bizarre behaviour," said Hague in his flat Yorkshire vowels. "Even by their standards."

According to the opposition MPs of Welsh constituencies staging their boyo-cott, it was not as bizarre as making William Hague Secretary of State for Wales. This was, they argued, "a slap in the face" for the Welsh people. To replace the previous incumbent, John Redwood, a man who, as his recent attempt to seize the Tory party leadership proved, clearly saw Wales merely as a staging post to further his own ambition, John Major had once again saddled the principality with an Englishman on the make. Not only that, this particular Englishman had barely left school, let alone gleaned sufficient experience to run such an important office. William Hague: the man Private Eye called "William Squitt, 16".

On Wednesday morning, standing in the concourse of Paddington station waiting for the train to take him to Cardiff and his first day of official engagements in his new manor, William Hague appeared unperturbed by the concerted attempt to undermine him on the grounds that he was too English, too young, and, worst of all, looked too much like Clive Anderson.

"I didn't worry about it at all," he said of the boyo-cott. "They shot themselves in the foot, really, left the way open for me. You always think of these things afterwards, but it occurred to me that two previous leaders of the Labour Party - Foot and Callaghan - were Englishmen with Welsh constituencies. And I don't remember Welsh Labour MPs objecting to them."

And then he added, after catching sight of the sandwich and tea bought from the station buffet I was holding: "More important than that, why aren't you eating breakfast on the train? I never miss a chance for breakfast on the train."

After a few minutes in his company, you get the impression that it would probably take more than a few absent Labour MPs to disturb William Hague's self-confidence. This particular characteristic has been on display since, as a 16-year-old, he made a speech to the Tory party conference wearing a Jimmy Osmond haircut, a supercilious air and a jacket so criminal he should have been barred from public life on the spot. Mrs Thatcher called him then a future prime minister, which is almost as big an albatross as a junior winger at Old Trafford being told he is the next George Best. But it didn't put Hague off his purposeful stride. Via the double whammy of a First in PPE and the Presidency of the Oxford Union, he had a short diversion into management consulting, before arriving in the Commons in 1989, on the back of the last by-election the Conservatives won. Now, after spells in the Treasury and the Department of Social Security, at the age of 34, he has landed a ministry.

"Well," he said of his meteoric rise, "I do seem to get busier every so often."

This ministry, however, is a sensitive one. Hurt feelings of thwarted nationalism and a sense of being governed by a party you didn't vote for are widespread in the principality: prejudices which are hardly assuaged when the last incumbent as Welsh Secretary boasts that he never spent a night in Wales, and is caught on camera performing a passable impression of a startled pigeon when he should be singing the national anthem of his adopted home.

So in his first few days in office, William Hague has been busy brushing up on his diplomatic skills. He has learnt the anthem, intends to stay the night in Wales as soon as possible, and on the train to Cardiff spent the time he wasn't assaulting scrambled eggs poring over the contents of his dispatch box and signing letters in Welsh. Sensible precautions, particularly since, as he stepped out of Cardiff station towards his ministerial Rover, he was immediately collared by a local.

"Are you the new Secretary of State?" said the man.

"Er, yes," said a sheepish Hague.

"Then, you're very welcome here, Sir. Very welcome indeed." As he shook the man's hand, the new minister looked astonished: the Welsh, they don't bite after all.

His first real act in his new job was, his press officer warned, "a hot issue locally": to reveal the course of two new roads. As he arrived at the Welsh Office he was harangued by two dozen road protesters.

"He had an opportunity as a newcomer to stop this scheme," said Mike Clement, one of the protesters. "By not taking it, he's proved to us what he's made of."

Hague stopped as he got out of his car, talked to the protesters, politely ignored what they had to say, then made his way to make his announcement. He swished into the press conference room, sat down in the large leather chair marked Secretary of State, and began briskly by addressing the assembled ranks of the local media.

"Right, er good morning ladies and er gentlemen," he said, bringing into full operation his speech tic of er-ing every third word when speaking publicly. "Let's er get on." And get on he did, breezing through his announcement at top speed. Clearly he had spent his time on the train productively, acquainting himself not only with the routes of the two roads, but with the pronunciation of the villages through which they are to pass. When one of the press men asked him why the route had been diverted through a particularly sensitive area, he knew all about it.

"I'm very much er aware of the landscape, archaeology and er environment in the Clydach er Gorge," he said, calling it Cluddock like a native. "But this scheme has had two series of public consultations. We have been listening to people's er views."

He said this several times, to the assembled company, then individually to all the local news organisations recording items for that day's news bulletins.

"Redwood was always very keen to talk to us as well," said Andrew Jones of Red Dragon Radio, the local independent station. "He once sent us a fax to congratulate us on increased listening figures. Which was nice, except he sent a copy of the same fax to the BBC." Once the conference was over, Hague span up to his private office ("Lead the way," he said to an official, "I've only been there once before"). This was a large room, empty except for an empty desk. The walls had nothing on them, as if John Redwood had taken his posters of Maggie with him when he left.

"It's nice to have a little gap between engagements, to get into the appropriate gear," Hague said, swinging his Hugo Boss jacket over the back of his chair and picking up his pen to finish writing a speech. "That's a transport metaphor, by the way, nothing to do with costume changes."

Speaking of transport, why had he decided to start his tenure with such a sensitive policy announcement as the one he had just made to cover much of the valleys in tarmac? Was he merely trying to prove he was tough enough to grasp difficult nettles?

"Well, there are contentious issues you want to hold back on," he said. "But if you delay, you never get anywhere. Anyway, frankly, this wasn't one of them."

Which made you wonder what lies in store for Wales.

Last Wednesday, until he got the call from Downing Street that David Hunt wasn't prepared to go back to Cardiff again and preferred getting out of the cabinet altogether, William Hague had probably never given Wales a passing thought. A week later, he was the guest speaker at a lunch thrown by the Institute of Welsh Affairs fulfilling an invitation issued to his predecessor, giving a 20-minute speech on his vision for the country. Such is the politician's lot.

Before he began, several of the Institute's members, sitting around eating their lunch of salmon salad, expressed feelings similar to the boyo-cotters.

"It's an emotional thing, really," said Mike Stephen, a director of a software group based in South Wales's silicon valley. "But there is an assumption that a Welshman will somehow fight harder. It's not necessarily true - Peter Walker wasn't Welsh - but it's hard to ignore."

Hague's speech, though, as befits a former University debater, was a model of how to win over an audience: three good gags then 15 minutes of tightly argued sincerity. At the end of it he got a reception which must have been somewhat more encouraging than the one he received at the beginning of his first week in the job.

"People have tried to give me a hard time, but I'm used to that," he said afterwards. "Remember, I was brought up in Yorkshire."

And then, to prove his point, he told a story about how a couple of weeks ago he had been to a primary school in his constituency to tell the children what life was like as an MP, to explain Parliament, that kind of thing. Afterwards, the entire school lined up to get his autograph.

"I scribbled for about half an hour until I got to the last lad in the line," he said. "He looked at me and said: 'Have you got a piece of paper?' So I scrabbled in my pockets and found one and gave it to him. 'Right, have you got a pencil?' So I got out a pencil, and signed my name. When I'd finished he looked at my autograph, then looked at me and said: 'Who are you anyway?' So I explained I was William Hague, his local MP, and I was there to talk to him about Parliament and so on. 'In that case,' he said, staring up at me. 'Have you got a rubber so as how I can rub this out?'"