Relax Ffion, for you will make no difference

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The Independent Online
At Westminster it has been impossible to escape references to this season of goodwill, invariably followed by pieces of ill will, malice and uncharitableness. In this column I hope to do better. Today my best wishes go out to Ffion, Mrs William Hague. I have never met the lady. Nor do I feel specially warmly towards that prim, nationalistic section of Welsh society from which she springs.

Incidentally, in one of the "profiles" of Ms Jenkins, as she then was, which appeared over the past few months there was the assertion that members of the Welsh establishment liked being at rugby internationals at Cardiff. If they do, it is for show merely. There has always been an antipathy between Welsh Nonconformity and Welsh rugby: partly because the game was brought to Wales in the 19th century by the Anglican clergy, partly because it is associated with beer but mainly because it is a distraction from the Word. This attitude was well caught by David Lloyd George in denouncing, in his phrase, the "morbid footballism" of the south, a part of his native land (though he was born in Manchester) which he never liked or properly understood.

But this is by the way and, in any case, not the fault of Mrs Hague. I wish her well. She has been given an impossible task. Ostensibly serious political correspondents tell us that she is the principal, even the sole hope of the party of Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher, to name but a few. Her chief function, we are told, is to produce children.

This is great impudence. She may not want to have children - or not yet. She has a decade in front of her in which she and her husband can make up their minds. It has nothing to do with anybody except themselves and, conceivably, their own parents, who may for sentimental reason wish to become grandparents. Instead the poor girl is being treated as a brood mare or (what amounts to the same thing) the wife of the young Duke of Omnium, who is expected to produce an heir and then retire to her own pursuits, while the Duke returns to his: an aristocratic pattern followed in the marriage of the Prince of Wales.

And yet, I have not read one denunciation of the impertinent expectations allegedly reposed in Mrs Hague either from the harpies who give their opinions weekly, sometimes more often, in the broadsheet press or from their sisters at the cheaper end of the market. So by default the task falls to me instead.

I will now let her, her husband and her husband's party (for it would be surprising if she herself supported the Conservatives) into a secret. It does not matter whether she has children or not. It does not even matter much what she does with herself generally.

Cherie, Mrs Tony Blair has demonstrated that it is possible to dislike cats - some might argue, to ill-treat them, for it is surely unkind to remove a creature such as Humphrey from his familiar haunts and expel him to a strange and ignominious suburb - and still to retain the affection of the British people. Or, at least, if Mrs Blair is slightly lower in public esteem than she was on account of her treatment of the cat, it has not impinged on her husband's popularity. This is down slightly from its level in May, but is still at a greater height than any previous prime minister has attained after eight months in office.

Here, for Mrs Hague's benefit, is a further example. Just before the 1970 election it was said that Edward Heath was bound to lose it because he was a bachelor whose chief interest was playing the organ and who was accordingly out of touch with the preoccupations of most people. His winning of the Sydney-Hobart yacht race in 1969 was not mentioned so often. It could be argued, however, that these expensive nautical activities, which were mysteriously financed to provide him with a different "image", were equally remote from popular concerns.

Anyway, throughout his period in opposition, perfunctory attempts were made to "find Ted a wife". The favourite candidate to fill this role was the pianist Moura Lympany. Whatever her views, Sir Edward exhibited all the enthusiasm of one of those giant Chinese pandas at London Zoo whose activities or, rather, lack of them were diverting the populace in those more innocent times.

It did not matter. Sir Edward's lack either of a wife or of any discernible interest in acquiring one made no difference. He overturned a Labour majority of just under 100 to win comfortably. Contrary to what some people imagine, I do not think history is endlessly repeating itself. What I do know is that large majorities of 100 or more have a habit of disappearing, like the snows of springtime, after five or six years, as in 1910, 1951 and 1970.

There is one important difference between Sir Edward and Mr Hague. Sir Edward had (for that matter, at 81 still has) a good head of hair. Mr Hague is spectacularly, absolutely, almost Platonically bald: he embodies the idea of baldness. No bald man has won an election since Churchill in 1951. It may be that Mr Blair will himself be bald in 2002. He is certainly going that way, though he hates being reminded of it.

My mother taught me it was rude to make personal remarks. But I do not think Mr Blair is dealing with what is, for him, an inevitable and natural process in the best way. He is trying to cover it up, as Mr Neil Kinnock did at one stage of his career, instead of meeting it, so to speak, head on. As Joseph Conrad writes somewhere or other: "Face the wind, captain." Or, as Martin Luther said before that: "Here I stand, I can no other." But whatever policy Mr Blair adopts, he will still have more hair than Mr Hague unless things go very badly wrong.

There is another difference between them. For all his familiarity with management-speak and his predilection for "bonding" weekends and similar pieces of nonsense, Mr Hague remains a traditional British politician. He came up through the Oxford Union, thinks rationally and speaks in coherent sentences. In this he is no different from Mr Kenneth Clarke, even though Mr Clarke went to Cambridge instead, has more hair and is more readily recognisable as a fully paid-up member of the human race. Mr Blair went to a more expensive school than either of them. Fettes is nevertheless a rather rough establishment. It produced John Simon, Selwyn Lloyd and Iain Macleod. They were traditional politicians too, in a way Mr Blair is not - or is not seen to be. This is his very attraction. The last thing the public seem to want is a traditional politician. They evidently prefer a leader who talks Wordzak. Accordingly the temptation for the Tories is to try someone completely new.

But who is there? Mr Clarke, perhaps? But he is hardly new. Mr Chris Patten or Mr Michael Portillo, then? But neither is in the House, still a qualification even in the most extreme forms of projected Tory democracy. Mr Hague is probably wise to go for as wide a franchise as he can. Against the predictions of assorted Mr Worldy Wisemen, the constituencies supported Mr Clarke in June. But if past precedents are any guide, they are liable to switch their support to the sitting tenant, Mr Hague. Such is their hopelessness, however, that precedents may no longer be a guide. Whatever they do, Ffion will bear no part of the responsibility. So leave the girl alone.