Bill Bloke: just one of the boys 'Nice bloke' Hague scores low marks in the sixth form

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WILLIAM HAGUE scored middling marks in economics and a commendation for his grasp of the Kosovo crisis yesterday, but the boys at Tunbridge Wells Grammar School awarded the visiting Tory leader nil points for personality.

The visit was Mr Hague's much-trumpeted debut outing as a "regular guy" who likes "hanging out" with young people. Instead of attending the launch in London of the Tory party's campaign for next month's local elections, he spent the morning shooting the breeze with 18-year-old lads.

But the pupils he metseemed rather underwhelmed. "He was trying too hard to relate to us and seemed a bit fake," said Chris Terry, 18. "He kept saying, 'Good luck with your A-levels, this is the hardest time in your life'."

The sixth-formers were notin need of any reassurance. Chris, who is studying maths, economics and chemistry, was not afraid to take issue with Mr Hague. "He said there might be a lack of innovation in this country, but I suggested that there was a lack of investment which meant that people with good ideas went elsewhere."

Mr Hague, he concluded, had avoided the difficult questions. "It just seemed that when he felt the question was going to be extended deeper, he changed to a different question ... He didn't have anything special to make people listen." But he conceded the Tory leader had been "good on the simpler questions".

Twenty-five prefects were invited to a half-hour audience with Mr Hague to ask questions on any subject. Wayne Sykens, 18, said Mr Hague seemed "quite a nice bloke, really", but lacked charisma - reinforcing the findings of the Tories' opinion polls. "He doesn't captivate the room," he said.

Richard Lyne, the head boy, asked: "Do you believe that the Conservative Party was responsible for destroying primary and secondary industry?" Later, Richard gave Mr Hague the benefit of the doubt: "He is a very intelligent politician."

The visit marked the beginning of a campaign designed to reveal the "real" William Hague behind the fuddy-duddy image. However, the man unmasked was rather shy: Conservative Central Office barred the press from his visit, refusing to reveal the school's name.

Mr Hague's absence from the Tories' London press conference dominated that event. Michael Ancram, the party chairman, who said Mr Hague was "leading from the front", was promptly asked why party officials would not say precisely where the front was.

Despite promises from spin-doctors that he was shedding his fusty image, Mr Hague played it safe on the school visit, sporting a blue suit and polka-dot tie - "the sort of clothes you'd expect a Conservative leader to wear", as the headmaster, Derek Barnard, put it.

t Paddy Ashdown launched the Liberal Democrats' local election campaign by calling on the Tories to apologise for their "victimisation of local government" and telling Labour: "Doing a little bit better than the Tories on public services simply isn't good enough."