How a political joke is now having the last laugh Hague used to be a joke

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HIS PERFORMANCE as Tory leader may be criticised in other respects, but William Hague has got the political joke off to a fine art. Today, in The Independent, he reveals his ten favourite cracks.

HIS PERFORMANCE as Tory leader may be criticised in other respects, but William Hague has got the political joke off to a fine art. Today, in The Independent, he reveals his ten favourite cracks.

He won widespread plaudits for some memorable lines during this week's Commons debate on the Queen's Speech. Some people asked if Rory Bremner had joined his team.

As Mr Hague walked into the Commons on Wednesday, an aide told him the speech he was about to give was "great". Mr Hague smiled but replied bluntly: "That means it will either be a triumph or a disaster."

In the event, he scored an unalloyed triumph over Tony Blair in one of the big set-piece occasions in the political calendar. His rave reviews were not just for a skillful attack on the Government but for a string of very funny jokes which had MPs, and even the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd rolling in the aisles.

Cabinet ministers had to laugh - until it was their turn to be the butt of Mr Hague's Yorkshire wit. The face of "Two Jags" John Prescott, a sitting target after his 300 yard car journey during Labour's Bournemouth conference, turned to thunder when Mr Hague said his "idea of a park and ride scheme is to park one Jaguar so that he can ride away in the other". This is Mr Hague's favourite gag.

His cracks might not be side-splitters if they were told in a pub. But he has proved that humour can be a devastating political weapon.

There is little doubt that his speech got under Mr Blair's skin. By comparison, Mr Blair's jokes fell rather flat; the Prime Minister who tells aides his three policy priorities are "delivery, delivery, delivery," is not particularly adept at delivering one-liners. Even Alastair Campbell, his press secretary and author of many of Mr Blair's witticisms, conceded that some of Mr Hague's cracks had been "very good". He declined to name the best ones, perhaps fearing Mr Prescott's wrath.

The gags at Mr Blair's expense are part of a deliberate strategy to undermine the Prime Minister. The Tories are convinced that much of Labour's popularity is due to Mr Blair's personal ratings, and so are determined to bring him down a peg two.

"William thinks that humour is a very valuable weapon," one close ally said yesterday. "The important thing about political jokes is not that they are funny in themselves but that they tell a political truth."

Of course, it is also the way you tell them. The context is all-important and Mr Hague thinks quickly on his feet. When a Labour MP tried to put him off his stride on Wednesday by asking him to "give way" he replied with an unscripted jibe over "the beef war" with France: "It is the Minister of Agriculture who gives way." His jokes were so good that Mr Hague's office was inundated with journalists asking if he had a new speech writer. Was Rory Bremner doing a little work experience, perhaps?

Tory officials insist the jokes are all the work of Mr Hague and his team. They are coy about whether outsiders send in ideas, claiming that most of his cracks flow naturally from day to day political events.

The Tory leader takes a hands-on approach to his speeches, which are much harder work than the public may realise: Wednesday's effort went through eight drafts and last month's address to his party conference had 14.

Friends say Mr Hague is genuinely witty in private. He uses humour to keep his spirits up, and the morale of those around him, when things go badly. He has therefore had plenty of practice.

Mr Hague can also laugh at himself - something he believes Mr Blair finds it harder to do. When the Tories bounced back after being written off by The Sun as a "dead parrot", Mr Hague quipped that the parrot was "still twitching" and "biting back".

The Tory leader proved remarkably resilient in his bad times and his recent run of strong Commons performances reflects a new found confidence. The silly baseball cap has gone, replaced by a Bruce Willis haircut.

Significantly an opinion poll this week showed Labour's lead had been eroded from 20 to 10 points since May. The witty Mr Hague could have the last laugh yet.

The Tory Leader's Greatest Hits (chosen by himself)

1. "Motorists do not want to be told they cannot drive in their car by a Deputy Prime Minister whose idea of a park and ride scheme is to park one Jaguar so that he can ride away in the other." (Commons Queen's Speech debate, Wednesday)

2. "I sympathise with the Prescotts. Last week they took the car because of what the seaside air did to their hair. I don't blame them. Look what it did to mine." (Tory Conference, October)

3. "Why does he (Tony Blair) not split the job of Mayor of London? The former Health Secretary [Frank Dobson] can run as his "day mayor" and Ken Livingstone can run as his "night mayor". (Commons, Wednesday)

4. "I gave a speech to this very hall 20 years almost to the day ... I spent three minutes telling Margaret Thatcher what she needed to do. Then, to the lasting benefit of this country, she spent the next 13 years telling all of us what to do." (Tory Conference, 1997)

5. "The Prime Minister will forgive me for suggesting that just as his honeymoon is coming to an end, mine is about to begin." (Commons, December, 1997)

6. "Another dreary beginning of the session, and this time I was the subject of the usual sanctimonious tributes, especially from that dreadful man Hague. Mind you, the Speaker looked particularly fetching." (Hague's spoof on Alan Clark Diary, Commons, Wednesday)

7. "Remember how Harold Wilson had his famous Labrador? Now, for the second time, we have a Labour Prime Minister with a faithful pet called Paddy." (Tory Conference, October, 1997)

8. "The French Cabinet has decided this morning not to lift the beef ban ... Is it not the case that, on Monday, he [Tony Blair] gave the French the Third Way and, on Wednesday, they gave him the two fingers?" (Commons, 10 November)

9. "The poor old Liberal Democrats have behaved themselves all year, not saying boo to a goose ... What do they get in return? Nothing. What a shame that the Liberal Democrat leader [Charles Kennedy] has gone in a short few months from Have I Got News For You to I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue. " (Commons, Wednesday)

10. "Tony Blair thinks he's a Napoleon Bonaparte figure who's taken near-total control of the levers of political power. Napoleon thought he was Emperor; he tried to submerge Britain in a single European state, and he obviously wanted to abolish the pound. He even invaded Tuscany several summers in a row. He thought he was invincible but he was finished off by a plain-speaking Conservative who went on to become Prime Minister (Wellington)." (Tory Conference, last month)

The Comics' Verdict

Roy Hudd

The Radio 2 presenter of the long-running comedy programme The Hudd Lines, and sometime political joke writer for John Prescott, said of Mr Hague's efforts: "Excellent. I can honestly say while most people think the Millennium Dome is a waste of time, I think William Hague is doing a good job."

Robin Ince

The writer for Channel 4's satirical The 11 O'clock Show, said: "Hague surfs humour from Swiftian satire to cheeky honeymoon gags with the face of Dan Leno and the delivery of Les Dawson. He has a mind as sharp as David Frost and brings a refreshing caricature to the world of politics."

Phill Jupitus

A team captain on BBC2's comedy pop quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Mr Jupitus is in the middle of a UK stand-up tour. He said yesterday: "William Hague's material isn't very good. Perhaps he needs to work on a puppet act like Mr Garrison in South Park. I'd like to see him with a sock side-kick."