Europe and terror: as Cameron moves onto dangerous terrain, he is lucky to have a Foreign Secretary with experience but no political ambition

Our Chief Political Commentator on the quiet virtue of William Hague

Share

The contrast was accidental and yet compelling. As David Cameron prepared to deliver his speech on Europe last week, and then cancelled it because of the hostage crisis, his Foreign Secretary was in Australia. That geographical distance, as Cameron became engulfed in two titanic foreign policy dramas – the one sweeping away the other – was both unfortunate and emblematic of William Hague’s unique and unusual presence at the top of the Government.

He could not have been farther away, as foreign policy soared to the top of the political agenda; and, quite a lot of the time, his political mind could not be more removed from the hyperactivity and multi-layered calculations of ambitious senior ministers.

Of course, it was neither design nor Hague’s fault that he was in Australia on official business when Cameron planned to deliver his speech on Europe (before postponing it to respond to the situation in Algeria). The sudden scheduling of the EU address was the consequence of a panic-stricken frenzy in No 10. Equally, no one could have foreseen the hostage crisis. Hague was unlucky to be so far away, on a trip planned months in advance. Nonetheless, the symbolism is vivid: a Foreign Secretary, his political ambition sated long ago, on the other side of the world, as the Prime Minister takes an ominously swashbuckling lead on foreign policy.

Candid

It is tempting to regard Hague’s detachment as part of a neatly symmetrical flaw at the top of the Government. On one hand, there is an ambitious Chancellor who is too busy, performing at least two pivotal roles; and on the other, there is a Foreign Secretary so laid back that he’s in Australia as the Prime Minister defines the Government’s foreign policy in dramatic circumstances. But such symmetry is rare in politics and does not apply in this particular case.

Although on a few occasions Cameron has been frustrated, and a little bewildered, by Hague’s Buddhist-like qualities, he is extremely fortunate to have a senior colleague who has already been a leader and who does not want to be one again. The Prime Minister knows it, too. When Cameron turns to Hague for advice, he appreciates that the response will be a considered view and not one laced with other calculations.

This was not always the case when Tony Blair sought the views of Robin Cook or Jack Straw. Both Cook and Straw were formidable figures in their own rights, each at times dared to develop his own distinct take as Foreign Secretary but always had to factor in his own continued ambition, dependent on Blair’s patronage. The dangers of being assertive were apparent when both Cook and Straw were removed unexpectedly from their posts.

Hague can be candid with Cameron without fearing for his political future. He does not seek a future.

Prime Ministers, increasingly constrained in domestic policy, tend to seek greater definition as leaders in foreign policy, regarding the Foreign Office either as an extension to No 10 or as an awkward irritant that can be an obstacle to their own plucky heroism. 

Unusually, Hague can be candid with Cameron without fearing for his political future. He does not seek a future. The overwhelming defeat for the Conservatives under Hague’s leadership in 2001 has had almost as big an impact on him as the ecstatic response to Michael Portillo’s defeat in 1997 had on the then-hero of the Tory right. Portillo returned to politics briefly, without passion, and is now a thoughtful, determinedly likeable television presenter and pundit.

Hague resigned from the leadership in 2001, went off to learn the piano, write books and become a much sought-after speaker and presenter. It is possible that his current role will be his last in politics. Sometimes such an unusual sequence makes him awkwardly detached, slow in responding to sweeping events. But it gives him the very big advantage of being able to form judgements on the basis of experience rather than future ambition.

Caution

On the Today programme this morning, Hague sounded exhausted, doubtless still getting over a flight from Australia and an around-the-clock schedule since. But he was also measured. He cited the rebuilding of Somalia as an example of how to help failed states, and was at pains to depict the current crisis on the biggest and most complex canvas, reiterating emphatically that it was a “complete illusion to think we are omnipotent”. Tonally, he was similarly restrained when discussing Europe with Ukip’s Nigel Farage on the BBC at the weekend – so much so that the mischievous Farage almost managed to portray the Foreign Secretary as a Europhile.

I am not suggesting that there are significant differences between Cameron and Hague. There are not. The Foreign Secretary supported the intervention in Libya and would not rule out further military action. Both are Thatcher’s children – Eurosceptic and on the right. Originally, Hague was much keener on the war in Iraq than Cameron was. But leading his party to electoral slaughter in 2001 and serving as a Foreign Secretary unburdened by ambition have made him a subtler and deeper politician than he was.

In his Commons statement today, Cameron spoke with potentially dangerous, Blair-like resolution of a “generational struggle against an ideology”. Tomorrow, he speaks on Europe. On both highly sensitive and complex issues, Hague might have cause to urge on him a more cautious approach. At least he will be free to do so and Cameron will listen.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 1 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Year 1 Primary Supply Teachers needed for...

Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: EY/KS1 Qualified Teaching Assistant J...

Qualified and unqualified nursery assistants

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified and unquali...

Primary Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: KS1 & KS2 Teaching Job in Plymouth an...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Recall Bill, pangrams and buildings that never were

John Rentoul
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album