William Hague: The Protector

Far from costing him his career, losing the Tory leadership merely presaged a new and influential phase. But the Ashcroft affair has proved damaging

No one who was there has forgotten William Hague's first appearance on the stage of national politics at the 1977 Conservative Party conference. The smirking 16-year-old harangued the hall in a harsh northern voice, warning the audience of the dire consequences of socialism while telling them that "half of you won't be here in 30 or 40 years' time".

While Margaret Thatcher beamed rapturously, not everyone was quite so smitten. That suave sophisticate Norman St John-Stevas was heard to murmur, "Where do they find them? Euston Station?" And when Hague was a candidate for the party leadership in 1997, the writer and sometime Thatcher adviser Ferdinand Mount quoted "half of you won't be here ..." and added that the charm quotient hadn't much increased in the intervening years.

Charm or otherwise, Hague himself is certainly still here more than 30 years later. After he led the Tories to a second defeat at Tony Blair's hands in 2001 he left frontbench politics for moneymaking, until David Cameron brought him back as shadow Foreign Secretary. But for the past week Hague has had the much more invidious task of explaining what he knew, or did not know, about the tax status of Lord Ashcroft.

Now Hague says he wasn't aware until months ago that the party's deputy chairman and a huge donor to its funds was a "non-dom" who pays only modest income tax in this country. For the Tories this is a calamity which might help to lose them the election; for Hague it's a humiliation which blights his career.

Which began with that speech. William Jefferson Hague – the middle name must be the only thing he has in common with Bill Clinton – is a Yorkshire lad who went from Ripon Grammar School and Wath-upon-Dearne Comprehensive to Magdalen College, Oxford. He was president of the union before taking a first in politics, philosophy and economics. An older friend at his college was Michael Crick, also a president of the union, now an author and BBC political sleuth, a younger one was Andrew Sullivan, now a gay activist in Washington.

Replete with honours, Hague did an MBA and served briefly as an adviser at the Treasury. He was at least spared the embarrassment of Cameron in the same role nine years later, caught for ever by cameras in the background as Norman Lamont, the Chancellor, announced the abject retreat of Black Wednesday, although Hague was indeed Lamont's parliamentary private secretary by then.

In 1983 Hague had joined McKinsey & Co. Time was when men and women who would later go into politics made careers first in the real world, at the Bar, in the army, in business or even in journalism. It's significant that the trade of choice for Hague should have been the shadowland of management consultancy, and that for Cameron later on the even more dubious world of television PR.

Having stood unsuccessfully for one Yorkshire constituency at the 1987 election, Hague won nearby Richmond at a by-election two years later. When John Major succeeded Mrs Thatcher in 1990, Hague was soon on the ministerial ladder, PPS and junior minister before, in the last years of that government, he entered the cabinet somewhat quaintly as Welsh Secretary. Richmond is a long way from Cardiff or Carnarvon, but then the Tories had almost no Welsh MPs.

This was when Hague was seen mouthing the Welsh words of "Land of My Fathers", which he had evidently learned parrot-fashion. A certain amount of cheap derision has been directed at his appearance, but he can be unconvincing in a way that goes beyond his looks. That became clearer after the catastrophic Tory defeat at the 1997 election, when he succeeded Major, beating Kenneth Clarke on the last occasion the party leader was chosen by the Tory MPs on their own.

Months later the Tory conference was harangued again, this time by a speaker telling the party that it was useless and should change itself. The paragon of political honour who said this was Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, the novelist Jeffrey Archer, Mrs Thatcher's grotesque choice as deputy party chairman and subsequently Major's even crazier nomination for a peerage.

In the four fruitless years of his leadership Hague did try to change the party in a cool modern direction, not with happy results. His arrival at the Notting Hill carnival wearing a baseball cap prompted the right-wing columnist Simon Heffer to say that he looked like "a child-molester on day release".

It's not that he is talentless, far from it. Hague has published a prize-winning biography of Pitt the Younger and then another of William Wilberforce, both genuinely good books which moreover, unlike some politicians, he wrote himself, and it might be that he has missed his métier. Then again, you don't make several hundred thousand a year writing serious biographies.

After the Tories had been soundly defeated again, campaigning on Hague's fatuous slogan "Save the Pound", he resigned the leadership and started collecting directorships, in AES Engineering and the AMT-SYBEX group among other, and "consultancies". His declared extracurricular income of £235,000 last year included £50,000 as "parliamentary adviser to JCB", and at one time he was being paid nearly £200,000 a year by Rupert Murdoch's News of the World.

When he did intervene in debate it could be painful. In his weird evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, Tony Blair said that he had felt obliged to take this country into the Iraq war lest he should be outflanked by the Tories in support for President Bush. While this is a ludicrous argument in itself, it's true that the Opposition frontbench supported the war, none more ardently than Hague.

It was in "our national interest to act in concert with the United States", he foolishly told the Commons. He added the preposterous words that "Every serious attempt to advance peace in the Middle East has been advanced under the auspices of the United States", as well as the deep historical ignorance encapsulated in the words "Without America, France would have lived under dictatorship for decades. Without America, the Germans would not have rescued themselves from a racist ideology".

As to the Ashcroft affair, anyone inclined to take a charitable view should remember that the Tories have a thing about deputy chairmen, and that Hague has previous. Thatcher liked to be thought Churchillian, and the more learned compared her with Lloyd George also. Like them she was in truth a poor judge of men.

Even so, she made an astounding unforced error when she appointed Archer deputy chairman in 1985, calling him "the extrovert's extrovert". It was not that she hadn't been warned. Michael Heseltine is no dull puritan, but he saw through Archer from the start and gave him a wide berth, while William Whitelaw said that Archer would enter the Lords over his dead body, and Mount added that Archer was his former chief's "most wince-provoking, hot-making mistake".

And Hague had been privately and specifically warned about Archer by his old Oxford chum Crick, the author of Jeffrey Archer: Stranger than Fiction, his hair-raising and hilarious biography. Hague still insisted on commending Archer for his "probity and integrity" just when the man's complete lack of those very qualities was about to be demonstrated by a prison sentence for perjury.

Sensible old Willie Whitelaw had said that Archer was "an accident waiting to happen" for the Tories. So was Ashcroft. The affair is an unmitigated personal disaster for Hague. Either he was complicit in Ashcroft's prolonged silence, in which case he is at fault, or he really was in the dark, in which case his judgement is suspect. The man who wants to be thought fit to run British foreign policy looks as if he's not fit to be out on his own, while in the process Hague has managed to make Harriet Harman seem an eloquent debater and Peter Mandelson a beacon of virtue.

No one expects Conservatives to be lovable or generous, and Cameron is wrong in trying to present them a gentle, caring party. Their selling propositions have always been competence, ruthlessness and what used to be called "bottom", a capacity for sceptical, common-sense wisdom. Never has that been so badly needed as in our present grave circumstances. Can the most devoted Tory say that the party, and William Hague, have shown much lately?

A life in brief

Born: 26 March 1961, Rotherham, Yorkshire.

Family: He married Ffion Jenkins in 1997.

Education: He was educated at Ripon Grammar school and Wath-upon-Dearne Comprehensive before going on to gain a first in PPE at Oxford, where he was president of the Oxford Union.

Career: After working as a management consultant at McKinsey, he was elected to Parliament in 1989 as member for Richmond, North Yorkshire. He became Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Social Security, before being promoted to Minister of State at the DSS. In 1995 he became Secretary of State for Wales. He became leader of the Conservative Party in 1997 before resigning in 2001. In 2005 he rejoined the Shadow Cabinet as shadow Foreign Secretary. He has published biographies on Pitt the Younger and William Wilberforce.

He Says: "I love being in Parliament in this situation where I don't want anything from anybody any more, and I haven't got anything that anybody can take away – and this is a wonderful feeling of freedom." On his return to politics in 2005.

They Say: "The shadow Foreign Secretary stands here without a shred of credibility." Harriet Harman this week

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