Hague circle `too young, too remote'

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The Independent Online
THE CONTROVERSY over William Hague's clean break with free-market Thatcherism has put an unwelcome spotlight on his tight inner circle of advisers.

Conservative MPs complain that they are inexperienced and have shown their lack of judgement during what has been Mr Hague's worst 10 days since becoming party leader in 1997.

Some party officials accuse Mr Hague of a "bunker mentality" and say those outside his group of loyalists are deliberately kept "out of the loop". "They are very protective of William," said one.

Most of the backroom team are under 40 and, say critics, relatively inexperienced. "The balance is all wrong. A young leader needs a few old, wise heads. We haven't got them," said one senior MP.

The new "kitchen table conservatism" - focusing on the bread-and-butter issues that concern voters - was constructed by Daniel Finkelstein, Mr Hague's policy head, and Andrew Cooper, the party's director of strategy and campaigns.

Both Mr Finkelstein and Mr Cooper were acolytes of David Owen when he led the Social Democratic Party. But claims by Conservative MPs of a liberal "SDP tendency" pushing Mr Hague away from Thatcherism are wide of the mark. "Finkelstein is one of the most right-wing members in the Hague office," says one fellow member.

The youngest of the Young Turks is George Osborne, Mr Hague's political secretary. At 29, he has just been selected as prospective candidate in Tatton, the once-safe seat that Neil Hamilton lost to the independent MP Martin Bell.

Allies say Mr Osborne brings the experience of working in Downing Street under John Major, while critics say the Old Etonian is "very Oxbridge" and too remote from the real world.

Others in Mr Hague's circle include Archie Norman, the former chairman of the Asda supermarket chain, who was once Mr Hague's boss at the McKinsey management consultancy.

Mr Norman became MP for Tunbridge Wells at the 1997 election and Mr Hague soon appointed him chief executive of the party, with a brief to shake up Central Office.

Mr Hague has kept faith with Mr Norman, despite a chorus of criticism that he is naive about politics. The former cabinet minister Lord Parkinson, one of the few old heads until he departed as party chairman last October, once told Mr Norman sharply: "I wouldn't tell you how to run a supermarket chain."

Sebastian Coe, the former Olympic gold medallist who lost his Falmouth and Camborne seat in 1997, is Mr Hague's chief of staff - and his judo partner. He is likeable but accused of being a lightweight by some Tory MPs.

The newcomer to the charmed circle is Amanda Platell, the former Fleet Street editor installed as Mr Hague's spin-doctor last month, much to the surprise of Labour figures who thought she was "one of us." The back- biters at Central Office are already asking whether she will last the course after a difficult start. But one friend said last night: "She is tough; she is not a quitter."

Tory Leader's Key Advisers


Aged 36. Key backroom adviser who persuaded William Hague to reject free-market solutions for public services. Appointed head of new Tory policy unit last December. Former ally of David Owen in SDP. Close to Peter Lilley, advised him to tone down his speech. Diet Coke addict.


Aged 42. Surprise appointment as head of news and media last month. Former editor of Sunday Express and managing director of The Independent. Baptism of fire as attempts to relaunch Hague met by ridicule and controversy. Famously well-groomed Australian.


Aged 44. Soon after he was elected MP for Tunbridge Wells in 1997, Mr Hague made him chief executive of the party, entrusted with shaking up Central Office. A former chairman of the Asda supermarket chain, he was once Mr Hague's boss at the McKinsey management consultancy.