How judo made a man out of Hague

It was the move of a judo master: work out your opponent's weakness, catch him off balance, then exploit the advantage without mercy until he's flat out on the mat and gasping for air.

It was the move of a judo master: work out your opponent's weakness, catch him off balance, then exploit the advantage without mercy until he's flat out on the mat and gasping for air.

But the crowd wasn't cheering a confrontation between black belts at the Olympics. This was Prime Minister's Questions at the House of Commons last Wednesday, and it was William Hague doing his best impression of a lean, mean, fighting machine.

He knew that vanity is Tony's Blair's soft spot. So the Conservative leader brandished a leaked document and struck a low blow. "Isn't it a disgrace that you are commissioning memos ludicrously entitled 'Getting the Right Place in History'?" he asked, and the Labour backbenchers who privately call their boss a dictator couldn't help but laugh at what was coming. "Even Napoleon didn't commission memos called that."

That ritualistic battle over for another week, Hague turned to face off another opponent. His Shadow Chancellor and long-time rival Michael Portillo declared on Desert Island Discs that he would not stand for leader of the Conservatives unless the incumbent resigned. So Hague has let it be known that he intends to stand down after the next General Election if the Tories lose, but offer himself as a candidate for the inevitable leadership battle. It is nothing less than a dare to Portillo and any others who fancy their chances. In the words of Dirty Harry (and, less successfully, Frank Dobson), Hague is saying: "Come on punk, make my day."

All this strutting fits in with the new image. Hague has been a changed man in recent months, with his brutally cropped hair and acid one-liners at the despatch box. He looks fitter and - let's face it - harder than the bleary-eyed new father suffering sleepless nights in Number 10.

Friends say his increased confidence and willingness to attack are the results of regular judo sessions with his sparring partner Sebastian Coe - and Hague himself believes the sport has helped him walk tall, by improving his posture so much he has grown an inch.

Pundits love to talk about politicians being quick on their feet and landing the killer blow, but is there a closer link between the reinvention of William Hague and all those hours on the crash mat? The judo expert Leigh Davies believes so.

"What goes on in the dojo, or fighting area, translates completely into your daily life," he says. "Judo will give you confidence. Lots of it. You walk differently after you've been doing it for a few years. You don't walk with the word 'victim' tattooed across your forehead any more. You feel stronger, you're fitter. It uses more muscles than any other sport except swimming. It turns a seven-stone weakling into a better, more confident person."

Hague was branded indecisive, inexperienced and a bit of a weed almost as soon as he became Tory leader in the wake of the 1997 general election. Critics pointed out that he took twice as much time off for a sinus operation as his hero Churchill had after a stroke.

Last summer, a leaked memo revealed plans to present him as an action man who loved fell walking, had a beautiful wife, and knew how to knock seven bells out of a chap. Hague had already dropped transcendental meditation for judo at the suggestion of his chief of staff, the former runner who is now Lord Coe.

They used to practise at Lord Archer's private gym, but went elsewhere after the peer's fall from grace - and just before the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner rebuked Hague for not declaring its use. Both men are now coached by Ray Stevens, British Olympic silver medallist, at the Budokwai club in South Kensington. They train together at least three times a week, usually early in the morning. "They are seriously good," says a witness. Coe is believed to be faster and more nimble, understandably, while Hague wins on aggression. Both earned their green belts earlier this year. There are still blue and brown to get before they can take on Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, who is a black belt.

There have been mishaps. Coe passed out when Hague caught him in a neck lock in January. The businessman Nicholas Gleave then volunteered to stand in for Coe, but fractured a rib after falling for the same move.

Coe and his leader apparently grapple without an instructor at times, although that is frowned upon by some in the judo fraternity. So is fighting half-naked - although the sport depends on grabbing the opponent's white jacket, the pair have been seen tumbling about topless at a gym beneath Dolphin Square in Pimlico.

"Judo means 'The Gentle Way' in Japanese," says Leigh Davies, a black belt who runs the Willesden Judo Club, the biggest in the country. He has trained 34 Great Britain team members, and 64 national medallists. "The sport is derived from ju-jitsu, a Japanese martial art that was used to kill people. Weapons were outlawed, so people used to beat each other up with their fists and feet. Then along came a man called Kano. He wanted to fight his friend, so he took all the nasty things out of ju-jitsu: the eye-gouging, the snapping of wrists, and so on. Then he could take on his friend in a controlled way, there would be a winner and a loser, but no one would be dead."

Judo spread throughout the world after the war. It is basically a series of holds and throws, and adults are also taught strangles and arm-locks - but as soon as the opponent signals submission the grip is released.

"Discipline is vital," says Davies. "Concentration is essential. Judo is physical chess - if you don't concentrate I'm going to catch and throw you. While you're doing that, you forget about mortgage worries and day-to-day work problems. Or politics."

Any politician trained in judo would relish the confrontational nature of Parliament, says Davies, who believes this is expressed in the balanced stance William Hague adopts when facing his opponent at the despatch box. "That's how you start a judo competition: you walk into the middle of the square, you bow, and away you go. He will have learned to switch off the surrounding noise, the rabble and jeering, and concentrate on the fight."

For now, Hague is the underdog, with the freedom of being in opposition. "If I'm fighting someone who is a higher grade than me," Davies says, "I have complete licence to try absolutely everything I can to upend them, and give them a good tanking around the mat."

As we watched fighters at the Willesden club, a young girl instinctively put her foot out to block a move. "He will be learning that ability to react instantly to whatever is thrown at him, so quickly that it goes beyond thought."

A politician can be made or broken by his ability to do that.