... but it's an all-male kitchen

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The Independent Online
EVER SINCE his election as Tory leader, William Hague has been criticised for relying on a small circle of young, inexperienced men, writes Rachel Sylvester, Political Editor. The Tory leader's "kitchen Cabinet" has changed slightly since he took over the party but it remains a tight-knit, at times defensive - and exclusively male - clique. Meetings in Mr Hague's white-walled office in Smith Square are full of the sort of banter which would not be out of place in a public school locker room; members of the inner circle compete to suggest the best joke for speeches.

Mr Hague knows he has many enemies on his own benches and has therefore surrounded himself with a small group of like-minded people he knows he can trust. Lord Parkinson, the former Conservative Party Chairman, once advised the Tory leader to distance himself from Sebastian Coe, his right- hand man. It was telling that Mr Hague did not defend the former Olympic athlete's political nous or intellectual ability, but simply replied sternly: "Seb's my mate."

Alan Duncan may have known Hague longer - the two men shared a house together after graduating - but the MP for Rutland and Melton has been edged out of the inner circle. He took the blame for the disastrous baseball cap photocall and the decision to try to make Hague look trendy at the Notting Hill Carnival. The Tory leader has made sure Mr Duncan does not have time to be a spin doctor by putting him in charge of real doctors as one of the party's health spokesmen.

Now Mr Coe is the Tory leader's closest ally. He is more than a political adviser: he is a "personal life trainer". "He goes everywhere with William," one insider said. "They're very close." The gold medallist puts Mr Hague through his paces at the gym and has trained him in judo. Every Wednesday, the two men prepare for Prime Minister's Questions by throwing each other to the ground. Mr Hague believes this is as effective a way to psyche himself up as practising verbal punches against Tony Blair. Mr Coe is the gateway to the Tory leader, vetting who he meets and deciding which engagements he should attend, but he leaves the finer political details to others.

Most of Mr Hague's speeches are written by George Osborne, the 28-year- old heir to the Osborne & Little wallpaper empire. He nursed Douglas Hogg through the BSE crisis as special adviser to the then agriculture minister and coached John Major through the disastrous 1997 election campaign. Central Office insiders say Mr Hague trusts the judgement of his youthful adviser "implicitly", although some Tories think he lacks the populist touch. Mr Osborne was the driving force behind the Tory leader's speech on the "British way" in which he advocated "brassiness" over "warm beer" and supported the idea of proposing an English Parliament - rather than concentrating on issues such as health and education - at the Conservative Party conference.

Mr Hague spends most of his time at Central Office and so needs a trustworthy spy in the Commons. David Lidington, the MP for Aylesbury and Mr Hague's PPS, plays this role. He is his master's "eyes and ears" in the bars and tearooms, picking up gossip and passing on whinges back to base so that potential criticism can be defused.

Gregor Mackay, Mr Hague's gregarious press secretary, is in charge of trying to get good publicity in the media. The 30-year-old Scot may not be quite as close to Mr Hague as Alastair Campbell is to the Prime Minister, but he is far more than a spokesman. When he touts the line to journalists it is clear that he is promoting a friend as much as his boss.

The kitchen Cabinet extends beyond Mr Hague's immediate staff to a few chosen high-flyers at Conservative Central Office. Danny Finkelstein, director of the policy unit, is crucial to the political preparations for Prime Minister's Questions. Andrew Cooper, director of strategy and campaigns, is in charge of polls and focus groups and is a key adviser on the long-term direction of the party. Rick Nye, a new recruit from the Social Market Foundation as director of the Conservative Research department, is seen as the ideal person to "think the unthinkable" on ideas.

These three - characterised by sharp minds and an irreverent sense of humour - have been friends for decades. Mr Cooper and Mr Finkelstein were at the London School of Economics together, then met Mr Nye when all three worked for the SDP. In those days, they were trying to beat the Tories through a centrist alliance. Now the kitchen cabinet must try to work out a way to halt the progress of the seemingly unstoppable "Third Way".