Matthew Norman: William Hague's a celebrity. Get him out there

To succeed, the only qualifications are to have failed in your career or to be a grotesque. He is both
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The Independent Online

Whatever style of undergarment William Hague prefers - whether the briefs favoured by David Davis, or the boxer shorts worn by David Cameron - one has to hope those pants are made of tungsten. If not, Mr Hague is in danger of suffering a peculiarly gruesome internal injury from the razor sharp horns of the dilemma on which he finds himself perched today.

Just a few weeks before the man in the boxers will fall to his knees and beg Mr Hague to join his front bench, the register of MPs' interests arrives with deliciously mischievous timing to crystallise his problem. Last year, we learn, Mr Hague earned about £1m from his extra-curricular endeavours. Some £400k from after dinner speaking, another £200k for a News of the World column, £110,000 for advising a couple of businesses and unnamed amounts as a "remunerated" director (what other kind of director is there?) of two others, large but unspecified royalties for his biography of Pitt the Younger... all pretty piffling sums on their own, but on the ancient "look after the hundred grands and the millions look after themselves" principle they do begin to add up.

So what does he do now? Carry on coining it at such a bewildering rate, or sacrifice almost all the dosh to serve the party he once led, and even perhaps the country he would no doubt claim with his dying breath to love? And if he does decide on taking the post of shadow chancellor (the only job juicy enough, one presumes, to tempt him to do the altruistic thing), what on earth will he say from the dispatch box if and when the economy takes its widely predicted turn for the worse?

"Mr Speaker, I address the House as one who knows from bitter personal experience how painful it can be to adapt to a dramatic change of fortune. I myself am reduced to the salary and expenses package of an MP, worth little more than £150,000 per annum, and if it wasn't for my wife's salary as a top headhunter - oh yes, Mr Speaker, it's very easy for honourable members opposite to sneer, but Ffion makes rather less than £500,000 - I'd barely know where the next mortgage repayment's coming from."

It might play well with swing voters in centres of urban deprivation, but you can't be sure that the Government would decline to have a crack at portraying Mr Hague as a shade out of touch with the fiscal fears of the electorate.

If, on the other hand, Mr Hague understandably concludes that he's completed his active service in the political front line, and would rather continue as a civilian milking the cash cow of his celebrity, people might start asking impertinent questions.

One that comes to mind is what in God's name he imagines he's doing as a Conservative MP if he isn't willing to give up his lucrative sidelines to help them return to power. The answer he probably wouldn't give is that maintaining the appearance of having a political future is good for business. Not to mention that it's jolly useful to belong to a central London club with a decent address that actually pays you something, albeit comparative peanuts, to be a member.

Having said all that, while he considers whether his place is on the front bench of the Commons or the after-dinner speaking circuit, at this minute he really belongs elsewhere. Today, William Hague ought to be putting up his hammock and joshing with Ant and Dec in preparation for the start of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! He should be in the Australian jungle not because he needs the £25,000, obviously, or the short-term career boost an appearance guarantees, but because he stands as possibly the most perfect paradigm for modern celebrity culture we have. To succeed on such a show, after all, the only two qualifications are to have failed in your chosen career (Les Dennis, Peter Andre, phalanxes of unemployed soap actors) or to be a grotesque (Nigel Benn, Uri Geller, Jordan and so on).

Mr Hague is both. Charming, highly intelligent, a great forensic talent, wittily self-deprecating, capable of breaking Seb Coe's arm at judo ... there's a lot going for him. Yet what we best know him for is the frightening precocity of his 16-year-old self, and owning a face that makes you think "but why isn't he in an incubator?" every time you set eyes on it.

There has always been something freaky about William Hague, and always will be. In the most delightful and appealing of ways, he is no less grotesque than another high-earning Tory MP Ann Widdecombe, who herself starred in the Register of Members' Interests for pocketing an extra £200,000 from books, media appearances and appearing on the lesser ITV reality show, Celebrity Fit Club.

When a firm of Midlands accountants book Mr Hague for their annual conference, to give a half-hour speech and endure a little light hand-shaking with the lads from capital gains planning, they are not paying him £15,000 for a potted history of William Pitt and his thoughts on the future of inheritance tax.

They are hiring him to be gawped at as the weirdo egghead whose political career peaked at 16, and who contrived to be an ex-leader of the Tories before he was 40, much as owners of travelling circuses used bearded ladies in 19th-century central Europe. If he chucks in a few well- rehearsed old anecdotes about Thatcher, Major, Blair and the rest, that's the direct equivalent of the surviving members of Mud and Showaddywaddy reprising their old hits on those 70s nostalgia weekends they have at Butlins.

In British entertainment these days, survival is everything. If you can endure the torment and keep smiling, eventually the public will come to feel guilty, and that guilt will mutate into an affection all the more strongly felt for its contrast with the previous disdain. I call it Bob Monkhouse Syndrome By Proxy, and if David Blunkett can hang on to whatever marbles he retains and affect a cheery self-amusement, he'll be a megastar too on the after-dinner circuit and TV quizzes within two years.

Unlike Mr Blunkett, however, William Hague has a choice. He survived the scorn, and performed the usual alchemy by turning abject failure into a lucrative business, but there is a serious political future awaiting him if he wants it. He could yet hold one of the great offices of state before he is 50.

Whether he joins the shadow cabinet may have a minimal influence on the outcome of the election itself, but it will be an oddly revealing decision for all that. If someone as apparently decent as Mr Hague thinks it acceptable to continue taking his MP's income while refusing to serve a party with a very fair chance of forming a government in three years, it will certainly tell us something about the public service ethos and its role in political life today.