William Hague: You ask the questions

The shadow foreign secretary on drinking 14 pints in a day and leading the Tories
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The Independent Online

Did you become leader of the Tories too young?



Yes, in the sense that I was not really prepared for it. However, I have no regrets about that since somebody had to do it - I always think I did the night shift - and the other candidates at the time would have had an even harder time of it. Also, I feel I got it out of my system, and since then have had a far more varied life, with no wish ever to be the leader again.

What were your biggest mistakes as leader and how would you do things differently now you are older and wiser?


Harrow, London

My biggest mistake was to underestimate the extent to which the Conservative Party had to change in order to win fresh support. The reputation of the party was damaged even more than most of us realised. That is why I have become an ardent supporter of what David Cameron is trying to do, and I think he is doing extremely well at it.

Would you have become PM if you had not lost your hair?



Er, no. I think I had bigger problems than that!

Where is the baseball cap and do you regret wearing it?



There is, or was, a whole box full of the things, which have by now raised lots of money at charity auctions. There are a few left in a cupboard somewhere. Certainly it turned out to be a mistake to wear it, although since I tended to wear a cap on holiday in the sun it never actually occurred to me at the time that there was something unusual about it!

You tried once before to pull Tory MEPs out of the Christian Democrat grouping in Strasbourg and failed to find suitable allies. What makes you think it is possible now and is the decision not just a blunder on David Cameron's part that will diminish Britain's influence?


Highbury, London

Actually, I haven't tried that before. It's something of a myth that " influence" in Europe comes from being submerged in one of the big groupings. Some countries, like Ireland, have had very successful EU presidencies without their party belonging to the EPP or any other large group. If it was possible to form a new platform for putting forward new and modern ideas for the future of Europe, that could give us more influence than tagging along with the failed ideas of the past.

Who will be in your new grouping in Strasbourg, since most potential allies are either unwilling or loopy?


Highgate, London

You'll have to wait and see on that one, but anyone loopy need not apply.

Is Britain a "foreign land" yet, as you once claimed it was becoming? And do you accept that that speech unmasked you as a racist?



Not to anyone who read it! The speech was actually about the growing power of the EU and the progressive loss of our ability to govern ourselves. Thankfully, the collapse of support for joining the euro, coupled with the wisdom of the French and Dutch voters in referendums, means we have been spared so far much of what could have happened. So no, we have not become a foreign land.

Do you think that reading Hansard in your bedroom at the age of 12 was time well spent?



This is another of those myths that will always be there, but at some stage I used to take it. It probably was time well spent because I have always loved taking part in parliament and feel at home there. I often say I should really have been born in the 18th century when parliament was truly pre-eminent in national debate.

Do you regret making a prat of yourself with that speech to the Tory conference when you were 16?



Oh, these balanced questions! No, actually, since I think anyone who hasn't done something as a teenager which causes some embarrassment to them or others will probably have a really boring existence.

What made you worth a million pounds a year as a speaker?


North Yorkshire

You think I will reveal a crucial trade secret? Probably the answer is I have been doing it all my adult life, starting off with local societies and charity events in South Yorkshire, and then around my constituency. I never realised until a few years ago that I could earn a living out of it as well.

Do you like Tony Blair?



In many ways, yes, because I have always had perfectly good relations with him and I often marvel at the sheer ingenuity and nerve of the man. That said, I will be delighted to see the back of him as Prime Minister.

What did you make of George Bush when you met him?


East Sheen, London

He is, as you would expect in someone who has reached his office, dramatically more personable and articulate than his image or reputation. And you realise within a minute that he has genuine and deep convictions. Perhaps that makes him a divisive figure but it also means you know where he stands.

Was it wise of you to praise Tony Martin for shooting a burglar, especially since Martin now says Britain should be ruled by a BNP dictator?


Sevenoaks, Kent

I don't recall saying any such thing, although I did call for the law to be more on the side of the victims of crime. Six years later, Tony Blair is finally saying the same thing.

If you knew then what you know now, would you still support the invasion of Iraq?



Yes. In any case I think political judgements always have to be viewed in terms of what we did think we knew then. If there had been no invasion, we would now be facing a different Iraq crisis, with Saddam Hussein still in charge. The real mistake was to prepare so little for the aftermath of his overthrow. In the Second World War, the allies had an established administrative plan of how Germany would be governed after the war, down to small and local details. Evidently there was no such plan in the case of Iraq.

Tony Blair: war criminal and traitor for selling his country out to America, or just a liar?


Folkestone, Kent

Not the former, although he could have used British influence on America more effectively. And not totally the latter, although he has got too used to using flimsy evidence to justify any course of action and then exaggerating it, which can destroy confidence disastrously in the case of war or peace.

Do you not think the world might have sorted out the crisis in Darfur if Bush and Blair hadn't invaded Iraq?


Hackney, London

I don't think so. I have been there recently and it is a depressing scene, but the world still can resolve to stop the killing in Darfur if the United Nations would take a firmer line. That requires China and Russia to share our concern.

If you were Foreign Secretary would you pledge British support for any American military action against Iran?



Not in those terms, no. I am not advocating or calling for military action, which would have countless dangers and unknowable consequences. But I also think it is a mistake to entirely rule it out when maximum pressure needs to be applied to the Iranian Government to desist from their own highly dangerous course.

As Tory leader, you became a bit of a joke. Now you are a part-time shadow Foreign Secretary, so why would anyone want so see you in office?


Ealing, London

Well, best regards to you too. I generally need to put in a good 12 hours a day as shadow Foreign Secretary and sometimes a lot more, so it's hardly part-time. Yes, I am finishing a book in what is left of my spare time, but the country is the poorer for it when politicians do absolutely nothing but politics.

During your visit to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, was there any single art treasure that gave you a new insight to the Russian national character which you would find valuable as Foreign Secretary?


Kilmington, Wiltshire

As you will know if you saw me there the other week, the Russian collection is not in the Winter Palace, it is in the separate Russian museum, and I didn't make it to that. However the Palace itself suggests we should never underestimate a country that can construct a single building with 115 staircases.

Whatever happened to the "common sense revolution"?



People evidently didn't want it!

When did you last drink fourteen pints in a single day? And were you sick?



Nearly 30 years ago. No. And it would kill me now.

Would you like to have children?



Of course.

Are you proud of the British Empire?



On the whole, yes, including the fact that it retreated peacefully. Colonial rule left many problems around the world, but the Commonwealth today is a far more useful and potentially powerful grouping than many British politicians give it credit for.

What did you really think of Michael Portillo when he was your shadow Chancellor? If you had to be stuck on a desert island with him or Ann Widdecombe, who would you choose?



I wished I had worked with him in government, because neither of us are happy in opposition. I think it would have to be Ann on the desert island on two grounds: she is unbelievably persistent at making the best of a situation and the whole world would want to rescue me.

Is telling Irish jokes racist?



No, they are a country not a race. But in the modern world, it has quite quickly become inappropriate.

What's the most fun: writing books, politics or presenting Have I Got News For You?



They are all fun, but writing books is the most satisfying, partly because it is the only one in which you can be sure you will have something to show for it many years later.

Were you ever affected by all the hurtful remarks about your appearance such as the one comparing you to a foetus ?


Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire

Not really. Politics is a rough business and it is crucial not to take things personally. I have never known a personal insult do any good for the person who makes it.

You were too young, Sir Menzies Campbell's too old: what is the right age for a party leader? And would Pitt and Churchill be torn apart by the media today?


Winchester, Hampshire

Thirty-nine, I think David Cameron would like me to say! Actually I don't think it matters much - when people say too young they mean too early and when they say too old they mean unexciting. As for Pitt and Churchill, yes they would have a hard time in 21st-century politics, with accounts of excessive alcohol consumption all over the place.

Do you feel that you have lived up to the old school motto of Meliora spectare or is the best yet to come?


Keighley, West Yorkshire

Oh the best is yet to come, at least in books. As for politics ... that is not so predictable.