Young pretender

Are the Tories ready to skip a generation and choose leadership front-runner William Hague to heal their fractured party?
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The Independent Online
IN a corridor of the House of Commons last week one Conservative MP confessed to having lunched particularly well. His host? Michael Howard, contender for the leadership, who had thrown a lunch party for MPs at Jonathan Aitken's elegant home in Lord North Street.

But politics is a fickle trade, and sadly for Mr Howard, the same Tory MP was due to spend his evening dining with another contender, Stephen Dorrell, at a bash in Vincent Square provided by the former MP and millionaire, Tim Sainsbury.

Even there, his mind may have been on other things. Our floating Tory backbencher had an invitation for a select drinks party in the Commons on Thursday night - a chance to chat to the surprise front-runner in the leadership contest, William Hague.

In a few weeks Mr Hague has been transformed from an able but junior Cabinet minister to likely leader of the Conservative Party. He has won the backing of influential figures from both wings of the party and wooed party activists at public meetings from Edinburgh to Bristol.

Neutral Conservative MPs believe that Mr Hague has almost as many firm pledges of support as Kenneth Clarke - with a good deal less political baggage than the pro-European ex-Chancellor. Rivals are concerned enough to talk of a "stop-Hague" campaign. How has the former Welsh Secretary come unexpectedly to the threshold of leadership of the Opposition at the age of 36?

Since his arrival in the Commons in 1989 (his was the last by-election to be won by a Conservative candidate), Mr Hague has impressed colleagues with his maturity, his political skill and his genius for not making enemies. One former minister, now a supporter, recalls how he was recruited to a dining club, the Third Term Group before the 1992 election, and immediately acquitted himself well; "a lot of people who come to the Commons in their twenties behave in the way you would expect those in their age-group to behave. He was more mature. He did not try to talk too much in a group which, after all, included members of the government. But he never hid his views either."

IN THE last Parliament Mr Hague rose effortlessly, despite - often because of - the misfortunes of ministerial colleagues. His first big break came in the wake of "Black Wednesday" when he was parliamentary private secretary to the Chancellor, Norman Lamont. As his boss's position looked increasingly doomed, Mr Hague remained loyal in private as well as in public. When Mr Lamont was finally fired, Mr Hague emerged unscathed, but also got a junior government job in the reshuffle.

There followed a period at the Department of Social Security before his rise to cabinet rank, in 1995, when John Redwood walked out of the government. Mr Hague's stewardship of the Welsh Office was smoother than that of his predecessor and was handled with Mr Hague's trademark personal modesty. As one ex-minister put it: "John Moore also had a rapid rise through the ranks but did not keep his feet on the ground. He became too grand to speak to colleagues. William has no arrogance or smugness." The consensus was that he possessed a very wise head on young shoulders.

Before the election Mr Hague was seen as a political figure of the future, rather than the present - not the next leader of the party but the one after. In February this year, potential supporters were discussing his prospects of running after an election defeat as an outsider in order to put down a marker for the future. The advice from one was clear: run in 1997, history is full of people who waited for their time to come, only to find that it never did.

But it was only when the scale of the Conservatives' election catastrophe became clear that it began to dawn on Mr Hague that, instead of just putting down a marker, he could actually win the contest. The Tories' rout eliminated obvious contenders, including Michael Portillo and Malcolm Rifkind. Within two days of polling, the potential "stop-gap" candidate, Michael Heseltine, had also withdrawn from the field on health grounds.

Yet a secret liaison with Michael Howard four days after the election, during which Mr Hague discussed running as Mr Howard's junior partner, indicates the difficulty he had in adjusting to the new climate. Only a couple of his closest allies knew that the meeting with Mr Howard was taking place on the last night of the Home Secretary's stay in his official London residence. According to the Howard camp, the deal was toasted in champagne; Hague backers say no deal was struck but concede their man may have conveyed the wrong impression.

Over the weekend Mr Hague had been leaving messages with MPs and, when he returned to his flat in Dolphin Square in Pimlico on Monday night after the Howard meeting, Mr Hague's answering machine was filled with messages of support. At 7am the following morning he spoke to his friend (and campaign manager), Alan Duncan, and told him that he had decided to stand for leader. By 8am the "deal" with Mr Howard was off.

Mr Hague's emerging dominance is partly a reflection of the weakness of each of the alternative candidates, partly of the peculiarity of the election procedures. To win on the first ballot a candidate needs to receive an overall majority of those entitled to vote and to receive 15 per cent more votes than any other candidate. All those who fight the first round can go through to the second round (where a majority of all those entitled to vote is required to win). The third ballot - now universally expected - consists of the top two performers from the second round.

Mr Clarke is the biggest hitter in the field, an experienced parliamentary debater with up to 40 supporters and the endorsement of a number of figures in and out of Parliament. Among those discreetly canvassing on his behalf last week was Chris Patten, governor of Hong Kong. Sir Leon Brittan, deputy president of the European Commission, also backed the ex-Chancellor.

Mr Clarke is likely to win the first round but with insufficient votes to clinch the leadership outright. Gaining further support from the right in subsequent rounds will be difficult given his position on Europe. As one Conservative MP put it: "After that Ken hits a glass ceiling. He can't hope to win many more than 40 votes." Some believe that his first-round strength might be depleted with supporters defecting to one of the more right-wing candidates (probably Mr Hague) thought more likely to win.

The campaigns of Mr Dorrell and John Redwood are lagging behind. Mr Dorrell's recent scepticism on Europe has enraged the party's left; as one pro-European source put it: "Dorrell's utterances produced an anger I have rarely seen in the party." Mr Redwood is paying the penalty for his disloyalty to the last prime minister. That leaves Michael Howard and Peter Lilley. Mr Howard's core support, perhaps of around 20 MPs, has not been affected by the attack on his former colleague Ann Widdecombe, but it has limited his ability to reach beyond these confirmed supporters. The impact of the charges will fade with time but damage has been done.

Mr Lilley, an intelligent and effective right-winger, is running a good campaign enlisting the support of some moderates such as Gillian Shephard and David Willetts. Doubts remain about his charisma, but he could still play a decisive role in the outcome of the election and has an outside chance of sneaking it.

Hague's prospects of squeezing through the middle look good. Some MPs question his lack of experience and his judgment, others think his campaign is too frenetic. As one Clarke backer put it: "Hague is in serious danger of over-exposure. By becoming the darling of the constituencies he is having to keep up the excitement level to justify the meetings he has planned around the country. He's saying silly things."

More damaging is the accusation that the very skills that helped him succeed in government may not be the best qualification for leadership. His career path to date bares more than a passing similarity to that of the last prime minister, causing enemies to dub him "John Major with an honours degree."

In private Mr Hague's politics are of a centre-right hue; in public and Cabinet he has been a loyal Majorite avoiding the sulphurous internal debate over Europe. Even an ally agrees: "He should have been in the Treasury; instead he spent his ministerial career in corporatist jobs."A less charitable Tory added: "In Wales his biggest achievement was to spend hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money buying jobs through subsidies to inward-investors."

A TOUGHER line - dispelling the "Hague the vague" image - might win right-wing support, helping in a contest against Mr Clarke in a third- round ballot. But the electoral process is unpredictable and, if Mr Clarke's early support deserts him, Mr Hague could end up doing battle with Mr Lilley. In those circumstances the votes of the left need to be lured. Many Clarke supporters see Mr Hague as their second choice.

The solution is ingenious: to appear as the only force young and dynamic enough to fashion a new type of conservatism. He presents himself as the man who can revive the party's moribund institutions and re-establish the coalition of interests which once voted the Tories to power.

Last week Mr Hague attacked the "fudge" of the Major years. According to one source: "Hague is being brilliantly advised. He's distinctive, fresh and has a clear message about the future and about new Conservatism." Tories might be advised to listen - this unlikely endorsement came from a source in the place they covet most of all, 10 Downing Street.