Through a beer glass darkly
Pints, punches and the pursuit of power. The boy Hague I knew at Oxford
Thursday 05 October 2000
During the late Seventies, while editor of the Oxford University newspaper
Cherwell, I initiated a Pushy Fresher award. Every October there were invariably a few first-year undergraduates who loudly declared their ambition to take over every student institution.
Cherwell's contest, we hoped, might bring these obnoxious, arrogant upstarts down a peg or two. The feature ran for many years, and winners later included the BBC political correspondent Nick Robinson and the convicted fraudster Darius Guppy.
During the late Seventies, while editor of the Oxford University newspaper Cherwell, I initiated a Pushy Fresher award. Every October there were invariably a few first-year undergraduates who loudly declared their ambition to take over every student institution. Cherwell's contest, we hoped, might bring these obnoxious, arrogant upstarts down a peg or two. The feature ran for many years, and winners later included the BBC political correspondent Nick Robinson and the convicted fraudster Darius Guppy.
But in the autumn of 1979 there was an odds-on favourite for Pushy Fresher long before term started. For months Oxford politicians had been digesting the news that the university had awarded a scholarship to the Yorkshire boy who had shot to national fame with his precocious speech at the 1977 Tory conference. William Hague, we all assumed, planned to take Oxford politics by storm, but there were plenty of people just as determined to make sure he didn't.
By 1979 I had moved from Cherwell to become president of the Oxford Union, and still remember the boos and hisses as I called on Hague to speak for the first time. What particularly amused me was how his biggest opposition came from Conservative ranks, particularly the left-wing Tory Reform Group faction of OUCA, the University Conservative Association. Hague had already allied himself with the opposing camp by going to Magdalen College, the traditional home of the OUCA right.
Yet it was soon clear that William Hague was never a serious contender for Pushy Fresher. We quickly learnt that there was a lot more to the young politician than naked ambition - considerable debating ability, a great knowledge of politics and yet also a real instinct for political life. It took only one or two speeches from Hague for the petty jealousy to melt away.
Contemporaries soon found that despite the image, here was someone difficult to dislike, who liked a drink and was good for a laugh, often at his own expense. Hague had realised that he was a marked man and deliberately kept a reasonably low-profile in his first term, being careful not to put himself forward too quickly. I can't recall who won that year's Pushy Fresher award, but they soon sank without trace. William Hague would none the less leave Oxford three years later, having been president of both OUCA and the Union. He'd encountered very little serious opposition in what seemed like an effortless rise to the top of both bodies. "The man didn't seem to sweat," says Mike Thompson, a predecessor as OUCA president. "Everything seemed to fall into his lap without him having to strain at all. Like a talented sportsman, he made it all look so easy."
And to the private irritation of many colleagues, he also picked up a first-class degree in PPE - after three years of claiming never to do any academic work.
Locked away in the Oxford Union archive is a fascinating collection of audio tapes recording almost every debate over the last 40 years. Hague's utterances in the debating chamber sound much more Churchillian and nasal than today. And he seemed to delight in provoking the House with his slightly eccentric opinions, though he claimed to be "unencumbered by any ideological baggage".
His call for proportional representation prompted yet more boos from fellow-Tories as he proudly announced his membership of the group Conservative Action for Electoral Reform. The House of Lords should be democratically elected, he insisted. But what really caused jeers and laughter in equal measure was his call for the return of the birch. Indeed, Hague would retain extreme views on law and order up until his election to Parliament 12 years ago. One contemporary, now an official at Central Office, recalls Hague, as recently as 1986, seriously advocating that Britain should bring back the stocks as a form of punishment. "We thought he was joking, but he wasn't."
Despite the nerdish public image he acquired as a teenager, it's never been all politics with Hague. As the world now knows, there was always time for a pint or 14, and he's remembered for widening the range of real ales in the Union bar. And contrary to rumour he did take some interest in girls, though it's unclear just how far he went with them. The Cherwell gossip column recorded how Hague spent most of one formal dinner "relishing his after-dinner treat with that Somerville woman" (though, alas, the paper didn't identify her).
In her new biography of the Tory leader, Jo-Anne Nadler relates the story of a party where Hague was stripped naked by a gang of drunken medical students and thrown out on to the street, only to return and deliver a knock-out punch to the ring-leader. This is one of the few occasions in life when Hague seems to have shown real anger (though who could blame him?). It's always struck me, as a television reporter, how difficult it is to upset Hague. Tony Blair is rattled surprisingly easily if you suddenly ambush him with a well-aimed question he's not expecting. The same goes for John Major, Neil Kinnock and John Prescott. But not William Hague.
Journalists have also paid too little attention to the 20 minutes William Hague spends each day practising transcendental meditation. His daily TM may partly explain his remarkable ability to remain calm under pressure and to keep smiling no matter how severe the problems to have befallen him during these last three years. His mother Stella also maintains his cheerful disposition is the benefit of an especially contented and stable family background. "It's better than having a silver spoon," she says.
In the summer of 1960 Stella Hague was wondering what to do with her time now that the Hagues' first three children - all girls - were at school. She and her husband weren't "desperate to have another baby," she admits. "There was a gap and I was just enjoying my freedom, and a cousin said, 'Now, you can learn golf or bridge,' and I said, 'I'd rather have another baby than do that'." The result is now Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition.
Nigel Hague, a true Yorkshireman, dearly hoped his only son would became a great cricketer, but it took only a few sessions in the back garden with his five-year-old to realise that William would never grace the Headingley wicket. Around the same period the Hagues visited Churchill's grave near Woodstock in Oxfordshire, and before long William had instead adopted the same pastime as the Young Winston - playing war games.
Some years later, in about 1974, Rotherham journalist Ray Harkin answered an ad in the local paper for Action Man equipment. The vendor was Stella Hague, who explained how her son had enjoyed hours of fun from playing soldiers, but was "into politics now".
Soon, alongside the Margaret Thatcher poster on William's wall, were lists of MPs and their constituencies. He learnt the details off by heart, along with MPs' majorities in many cases, and boys would sometimes test him on school trips. And on his 15th birthday Stella Hague invested 50p on a special treat - membership of the local Wentworth Conservatives.
One of his teachers, Robert Godber - who'd recently been an unsuccessful Conservative candidate - encouraged Hague's political interest. He lent him LPs of speeches by Churchill and that other great Tory orator, Iain Macleod (coincidentally, the young John Major had studied the very same record). What struck Godber about Hague, in comparison with other pupils, was his skill at "absorbing a feel for political behaviour".
Perhaps what really stands out about Hague's famous 1977 conference speech is the courage he showed, particularly at the age of 16, in gently mocking Margaret Thatcher, something Cabinet ministers three or four times his age would never dare do. Hague argued that governments should stop interfering and get out of people's way. "I trust that Mrs Thatcher's government will get out of the way," he added, then grinned and turned to the Tory leader behind him on the platform.
That notorious speech had, in fact, originally been planned for the previous year, when he was only 15. It was aborted at the last moment when colleagues realised Hague might be accused of playing truant from school, since he hadn't sought permission from the local Labour-controlled education authority to take time off to go to Brighton.
But the young William was happy to bend the rules occasionally. At Oxford he was later found guilty of "electoral malpractice" in an OUCA election. Back in Yorkshire, he would often swim in local lakes with friends, without the property-owners' consent. Then there was the much-discussed under-age drinking. It usually took place at his father's pub, the Rockingham Arms, on Friday nights. As to whether he ever consumed 14 pints in a day as he did his rounds as a driver's mate, my guess is that it was certainly approaching that figure. And friends support his claim to have consumed 32 rum-and-blacks on his 18th birthday.
Hague was careful not to force politics upon his pals, knowing he would be thumped if he did. It was bad enough having to put up with the lads at the back of the school bus who wouldn't stop reciting his much-reported speech on the way to school every day. Yet behind the beer-drinking and larking about with mates, was also a teenager whose calculation and ambition makes Michael Heseltine's career-mapping on an envelope in an Oxford restaurant look pathetically amateur in comparison.
Hague the schoolboy would frequently declare his ambition to become prime minister. A local Tory official, Pat Swift, remembers the day William explained how first he would become an MP, and then a minister. "I said, 'What about girlfriends in all this?'" Swift recalled. "He said, 'I shall not get engaged until I am a minister'."
Sure enough, less than two years after his appointment as Secretary of State for Wales, William Hague announced his engagement to his former private secretary, Ffion Jenkins.
Yet surely a true anorak would have been more careful in his choice of bride, and picked someone who shared his political passion and outlook? Tony Blair, after all, married a woman who also became a Labour candidate. Yet it's long been evident that Ffion Jenkins didn't wholly agree with her husband's right-wing politics, at least not before they married.
Ffion comes from a long-standing Liberal family from central Wales. Indeed, in 1996, when Alex Carlile suddenly announced his retirement as Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomery, Ffion was approached by one or two local Lib Dem officials and asked whether she'd be interested in being Carlile's successor. It's fascinating that, for a day or two, Ffion seriously considered it. Perhaps the Tories should make more of that fact.
When William Hague rises to address Conservative representatives today at the party conference in Bournemouth, he'll once again be resuming the struggle that he eventually won at Oxford - the struggle to persuade people to forget those powerful pictures of him as a schoolboy orator. For only when the public image of Hague is that of a potential prime minister, rather than the teenage freak and political obsessive who's now grown up, will the Tories once again become a genuine threat to Labour.
Michael Crick is the author of 'Jeffrey Archer: stranger than fiction', published in paperback by Fourth Estate (£8.99)
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