Commons cold shoulder for flu-ridden Hague

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS not even so much as a word of condolence, nor a hint of a get-well card in the Commons yesterday. Had the Tory leader really caught a cold? Or was that his party?

William Hague became the first opposition leader for years to miss Prime Minister's Questions because he was unwell.

Mr Hague struggled through most of last week with flu, his aides said, but was forced to admit defeat on Friday and abandon celebrations of his first anniversary as leader for a sick bed.

Ffion Jenkins, his wife, touchingly gave up her work to be with him in his Yorkshire constituency home. A spokes- man for the Tory leader said he was running a "very high temperature" and had been unable to sleep.

But some Conservatives were not impressed, though. One former minister seemed to think the leader's illness was in some way symbolic. "He's pathetic," he snorted. "It's that he's been off sick with the flu. It just shows how weak he is."

Mr Hague's spokesman did not agree, of course. "He's well on the way to recovery, but he is sensibly taking the view that it is best to rest so as to be fighting fit next week," he said.

Observers might have felt such an attitude was commendably "Nineties" and that the Conservative leader had just spotted an opportunity to show his more sensitive side.

In fact, though, he was following a long and honourable tradition of sick Tory leaders.

John Major was in the dentists' chair in 1990 as speculation mounted that he would run for the Conservative leadership after the fall of Margaret Thatcher.

Mrs Thatcher herself, famous for being invincible, had to take time off for an operation on her finger during her time as Prime Minister. A problem with the tendons was making it turn into a claw, which did not bring much sympathetic press.

Things were different in the 1950s, though. In those days Tory leaders were made of sterner stuff. When Winston Churchill had a stroke in 1953, there were fears that he might not be able to deliver his keynote speech to the party Conference, but after a quick dose of amphetamines he was raring to go. His address was a great success.

Mr Hague did not, apparently, feel that his meeting with sixth-formers in Lincoln this week merited such drastic measures. Nor, apparently, did a string of interviews set up to mark the anniversary and a public meeting in Yorkshire. He did manage to struggle through the presentation of some Young Enterprise business awards without the use of illegal stimulants, but a major speech on civic Conservatism had to be postponed until early July.

If Mr Hague has been sleepless, we can safely assume that the effect is merely a symptom of his malady. Despite the grumblings of disgruntled Conservative MPs over the last week or so, there were no obvious leadership contenders lining up to replace Mr Hague yesterday.

Standing in for his leader at question time, Peter Lilley apparently left no stone unturned in his quest to give the Prime Minister an opening through which to attack him.

Mr Blair had added pounds 3.5bn to Britain's welfare spending, he said, and he was "taxing people's pensions" to help make up the deficit. "We know you think your Chancellor is psychologically flawed. Are you saying he is arithmetically flawed as well?" he asked.

A lesser prime minister might have hesitated, but Mr Blair just went for a straight "no". Then he followed through with a list of Labour's achievements since the election. Mr Hague must have been very relieved.

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