Is Bill tough enough to play Action Man?

HE'S BEEN Bill Bloke, Bobby Charlton, Tory Boy, A Regular Guy, Bruce Willis, and even The Real William. Now, in yet another attempt to portray him as a member of the human race, William Jefferson Hague is Action Man.

According to a leaked Conservative Central Office memo, the leader of the Opposition is to be pictured as an abseiling, judo-playing, windsurfing, ass-kicking beefcake. The stunning brainchild of his wife Ffion and Tory spin queen Amanda Platell, the idea is to disavow the public of any notion that Mr Hague is in any way as a softie, political obsessive.

"Research" by Central Office has apparently discovered the stubborn fact that voters regard the 38-year-old as too bookish and elitist. Focus groups described him variously as a "school swot" and a political "trainspotter" and both Ffion and Ms Platell decided enough was enough. Swift remedies were needed.

"Project Hague", as it is imaginatively titled, will project the man described by Tony Banks as "a foetus" as a thoroughly grown-up, thrusting Yorkshireman, proud of his roots, his tip-top fitness and his family ties.

The memo reveals an exhaustively detailed set of photo-opportunities to be staged over the summer, ranging from appearing with sheep (that's real animals, not backbenchers) at the Great Yorkshire Show to appearing at a Star Wars premiere.

To press home the image of a relaxed Boy of the People, he was ordered to take his jacket off and pose among pupils at his former comprehensive school.

For his sensitive, caring side, he was to be pictured with his little- known family members, including his utterly normal, Lottery-winning millionaire Aunt Marjorie and nieces. "Family outing, close to nieces, tactile, happy shot" the memo helpfully suggests.

And to stress his meaner streak, the man who kicked sand in the faces of Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine's soppy pro-Europeanism will be pictured in his judo suit alongside soldiers. Unfortunately for those who would pay good money to see Mr Hague's own neck strangled in a half-Nelson, the memo warns: "No shots of actual fight, shots with Army fighters (In kit?)". Anyone fearing the possibility of an Ollie Reed-style nude romp will hope that kit remains firmly on.

A proud green belt, Mr Hague regularly hits the judo mat with Sebastian Coe, his chief of staff, and his female style advisers clearly believe it is a vote winner. The memo suggests that he should strive for his blue belt by the Tory party conference in October and get into "serious training" beforehand. Quite why it was assumed that images of him rolling around with Seb would make him appear more "macho" is hard to fathom.

Presumably for balance, Mr Hague has also been encouraged to take part in holiday stunts showing him teaching either Ffion or his godson to sail on the waters off Maine, New England.

Tory Central Office confirmed that the memo was a discussion document drawn up earlier in the summer to work on photo-ops, but insisted that not all of the ideas had been adopted.

"Project Hague's touching attempt at yet another image re-launch follows a catalogue of similar wheezes since Mr Hague became leader after the 1997 general election. From Nigel Lawson's Hairbear Bunch look to Douglas Hurd's Mr Whippy fringe, other senior Tories have had problem hair, but none has had the problems poor William has.

While Tony Blair is the Teflon premier, Mr Hague is Tefal man, his pink bonce a shining beacon of young fogeyism that has undergone vigorous makeovers. Having sported a Bobby Charlton comb-over, he now has a razorcut that the unkind claim resembles more a new-born baby's fuzz than the Bruce Willis knucklehead look intended.

Previous makeovers have proved disastrous, with the image of him wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with his surname ("to remind him and us who he was," as one wag put it) probably the worst picture opportunity since Neil Kinnock did a three point turn on the pebbles of Brighton beach.

Almost as bad was his outing at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1998, where he was snapped, tieless and in shirtsleeves, alongside Ffion's magnificent coconuts. Even Ffion has proved something of a liability, wearing a sorry Sari to universal disapproval from the style police.

Political opponents were not slow yesterday to seize on Mr Hague's latest embarrassment. Liberal Democrat campaigns chief Nick Harvey said: "The Tories are trying to relaunch a sinking ship. All the baseball caps in the world can't hide the fact that William Hague's Tory Party is divided and out of touch with the British people."

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister who has himself been forced to avoid the cameras of late, said: "The news that William Hague's image is to be relaunched yet again would be funny if it wasn't so serious. The problem for the Tories is not one of image, it's one of substance. It's not Hague that's unpopular, it's Conservative policies.

"William Hague may not like being thought of as a `school swot' or `trainspotter' as the Tories believe he is. But the only answer is some serious work on his policies and stop relying on his wife and advisers to paint him in a different light."

For a man whose job involves keeping a tight hold on his squabbling party, at least William Hague's lifelike grip hands should come in useful. His realistic swivel eyes could even become fashionable among certain Tory backbenchers.

Leading article

Review, Page 3

The Spin-Doctor

Charlie Whelan

"YOU MUST ensure that whatever strategy you come up with does not end up as a leaked story in a newspaper.

You are seen not to be taking voters seriously ... taking the piss out of them and people don't like that. As a politician, the most important thing you have to do is establish you are serious, with stature and gravitas. You must not be seen as frivolous.

You are not going to solve Hague's problems by meddling with his image when you have a party that can't decide on a major economic and political issue such as whether the Bank of England should be independent."

The Image-Maker

Fiona Harrold

"IT'S TOO late for William Hague. I can't think of a single thing that you could do for this man that would be believable and real and work to his advantage.

"He put the nail in his coffin when he was so insincere about the death of Diana and he has been trying to catch up since but he comes across as empty and not at all authentic. That baseball cap and the posed pictures at Notting Hill were a joke. The public has an abiding image of him as a 16-year-old kid at the Tory Conference. He looked 36 then and now he looks like a teenager trying to be a grown-up."

The Publicist

Max Clifford

"THE BEST publicity campaigns are the ones you never knew existed. They're invisible. The problem with the rebranding of William Hague is that we, the punters, know it is a rebranding exercise.

"If Hague was my client I would need at least a year to turn it around. It's a long lead-in time but look what you've got to work with. He needs some work on his teeth if he is to look better on TV and he needs some voice coaching so he doesn't sound so snide all the time. His people want him to swop jokes in matey pubs and go to farm shows but it looks too contrived. The public can see through that."

The Style Pundit

Peter York

"PEOPLE HAVE already realised what he is like and it's no good suddenly appearing in a baseball cap and pretending it's real. We know he is a schoolboy swot and why can't they just admit that and concentrate on showing he's a nice swot.

"There has to be some basis in reality. He is about as modern and natty as the Duke of Edinburgh is multi-cultural and they need to accept that. We don't know what he is really interested in because none of it rings true any more.

"He must have some real interests which can be presented in a sympathetic light. He can't be that dull.

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