The Tory problem is not Mr Hague - it's the Tories

'To those who know him, William Hague is probably one of the most normal guys in the House of Commons'

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When Michael Howard ran for the Tory leadership in 1997, he offered William Hague the chance to become his running mate and deputy. Had Mr Howard won the battle against Ken Clarke, he would have fared no better, probably worse, than Mr Hague has done these past three years. Equally, if Mr Clarke had won, the party would still be poised to lose the next election.

When Michael Howard ran for the Tory leadership in 1997, he offered William Hague the chance to become his running mate and deputy. Had Mr Howard won the battle against Ken Clarke, he would have fared no better, probably worse, than Mr Hague has done these past three years. Equally, if Mr Clarke had won, the party would still be poised to lose the next election.

Under either scenario, Mr Hague would today be regarded as the coming man to lead the Tories and a future prime minister. Instead, fate has caused the British people to imagine the present Opposition leader in Downing Street within a matter, possibly, of less than 30 weeks.

The immediate judgement, on the basis of the current opinion polls, is that the voters find it difficult to conjure up such a prospect. And yet Mr Hague proved before the summer recess that when public attention was focused on the personal dogfight between him and Tony Blair, there were grounds for optimism. When Mr Hague is seen unspun, in the raw, with nothing but a dispatch-box to separate him from the Prime Minister, he gets his best ratings.

When the two protagonists disappeared from view, however, Mr Blair's popularity returned while Mr Hague's took a nose-dive. Somehow, when the lifestyle magazines, the image-makers, and even the Conservative Party get in the way, something is lost in delivering the real Hague personality. The nerd-like political anorak image re-emerged during August with the cack-handed interview in GQ magazine and the unfortunate references to 14 pints a day.

But to those who know him, William Hague is probably one of the most normal, regular guys in the House of Commons. Certainly when he arrived in Parliament in 1989, winning the Richmond by-election, I found him to be a breath of fresh air with none of the hang ups and imperfections that characterise most MPs.

Easy, unassuming and without a streak of vanity, he was one of the most "clubbable" and popular MPs to frequent the smoking room or the members' dining room. If he was seated alone at a dining table, with the Commons' club rules requiring that you had to join the table, it was always with a sigh of relief that colleagues would happily jostle to grab a seat next to him, certain that the occasion would be fun and include a decent drink.

I doubt he had an enemy in Parliament, and when he became Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, there was not a shred of envy or jealously from those like me who had been mouldering away for a decade or more on the backbenches. MPs on all sides were genuinely pleased to see him beginning his climb up the greasy pole.

Late-night sessions would find Mr Hague, unlike most Tory MPs, sharing a pint and a joke in the Labour haunt of the "Kremlin Bar", where there was no room for airs and graces. He had a sense of puckish fun, and once held us spellbound as he described the photo-call one Budget day outside No 11. His principal duty was to make sure that the chancellor's alcoholic tipple was ready at the dispatch-box. Mr Hague was about to emerge with Mr Lamont on the Downing Street steps when the chancellor noticed him carrying a bottle of whisky. "You can't take that outside." But Mr Hague told him, "It's your Budget booze." "Well put it in the box," said the chancellor. Mr Lamont strode outside, waved the famous box for the cameras, with Mr Hague praying that the secret contents would not fall out.

We both became junior members of the Major government on the same day in 1993 (ironically, in the reshuffle which saw the demise of Mr Lamont) and together celebrated our first step on the ministerial ladder. Within a short time he had been promoted to Minister for the Disabled at the Social Security Department. It was here that Mr Hague won his best plaudits as he piloted disability legislation through the Commons. He showed that he could steer an important piece of social legislation past sceptical ministerial colleagues and an even more sceptical Labour opposition. He won rave reviews for securing this business - even from his Labour opponents who praised him for being the first Tory minister to actually improve the lot of disabled people.

Throughout his ascent into the Cabinet, he never lost his sense of humour and never gained a sense of vanity. Yet how is it that, like the rest of the population, I see - filtered admittedly through the media - a totally different personality to the one I saw at close quarters? According to those who see him regularly, like his friend the Tory MP Alan Duncan, he is still the same Mr Hague I knew until three years ago.

I believe Mr Duncan, but wonder how it is that the public image has become so different from the reality. Perhaps part of the problem lies in the fact that the Tories are in thrall to copying the tactics of the last war when, actually, the times may be coming into tune with Mr Hague's more natural style. Just as Mr Blair before the last election was concerned with packaging himself in the clothes of image and spin, so the Tories now try to use the same tricks for Mr Hague. The make-over Bruce Willis hairstyle is a symptom of this. The previously jovial, slightly crumpled style has given way to a skinhead look that reinforces a hard edge - the last thing the Tories need to emphasise.

The best service in representing the real Mr Hague has been done, not by his spin doctors and advisers, but by Jo-Anne Nadler, whose biography of the Opposition leader is published this week. Certainly no hagiography, her profile of Mr Hague with its amusing but harmless anecdotes paints a picture of the guy I knew before the 1997 election, but now capable of the ruthlessness displayed when he dismissed Lord Cranborne from the Shadow Cabinet after his duplicity over Lords reform.

Ms Nadler shows that the "unspun" Hague is more in keeping with the mood of times to come than we may have imagined. When - probably not until after the next election - we have finally tired of Tony Blair, "New" Labour and all things "Cool Britannia", we may be ready to "Believe in Hague". I suspect that, whatever the contents of this week's pre-manifesto, we will still be focusing on the personalities of both main party leaders rather than on the differences in their party's policies.

During the forthcoming election, Mr Hague may emerge from the caterpillar and chrysalis stage of his leadership, and begin to show the attractive side of his real character. The question is whether he can retain the patience of his colleagues should he fail to dent the Labour majority. The Tory party has a cruel streak in its nature and is impatient for results.

I do not believe that Mr Hague is the Tory problem - the problem is the Tory party itself. If the party can only be a little patient, Mr Hague may well be the very man the country will want in 2005. But as I have remarked before, the Tories are an intolerant and nasty lot.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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