The dream ticket Hague won't change his mind on

It is sometimes said that couples grow to resemble one another, like pets and their owners. William and Ffion seem to have reached that apotheosis already
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The Independent Online
There is an air of serenity about William Hague that seems as fixed as his boyish smile. It may owe much to his habit of descending into a trance-like state for 20 minutes every day in pursuit of his hobby of transcendental meditation. Lately, one might suspect a more prosaic reason - his beautiful and well-connected fiancee, Ffion Jenkins.

It is a union that might, as the cliche goes, have been made in heaven. After electrifying the Conservative conference at the age of 16, Hague rises effortlessly through the party to become Secretary of State for Wales at 34. As the general election approaches and a Tory defeat is on the cards, he is the bookies' favourite to be the next party leader. He lacks only one vital attribute - a wife at his side.

Enter, just two months before polling day, Miss Jenkins. The stunned faces of friends who thought the boy Hague would never get hitched are swiftly rearranged into congratulatory smiles. It turns out that the couple have been dating secretly for four months. They have just got engaged, so it is time to go public.

The cynics are cruel. William and Ffion are clearly smitten with one another, and the timing is just a happy coincidence. All those snide comments about Hague being a confirmed bachelor - that was just sour grapes by people on whom Lady Luck has not smiled so brightly. After all, he has had plenty of girlfriends in the past, including a House of Commons secretary and a glamorous public relations executive.

And yet, if he were to have constructed an Identikit picture of his ideal partner, of the woman best suited to helping him on the next staging post of his political career, she would have looked remarkably like Ffion Jenkins. Now that battle for the Tory leadership has been joined in earnest, his impending nuptials - sometime next year, say friends - are all the more important for his image.

Hague's promotion to the Cabinet led to him meeting Miss Jenkins, a 28-year-old senior civil servant in the Welsh Office. She was until recently his assistant private secretary. Love blossomed, so the story goes, after Hague enlisted her help to teach him the words of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers). He had been anxious not to repeat the mistake of his predecessor, John Redwood, who was caught merely mouthing the Welsh national anthem at an official function.

It was during these singing lessons that a mutual professional admiration turned personal. According to one story, the tuition took place on a windy hillside in north Wales. Another tale has it that Hague was initiated in a churchyard in Abergele.

While the relationship was still secret, he almost gave the game away on one occasion when, on leaving a St David's Day party early, he announced to Welsh Office officials that he was off to dinner with "Jolly Jenkins". Once it was public, Hague said that they had been so intent on discretion that they had not dared risk shopping together for an engagement ring.

Love is not always a fairytale, and can exact casualties along the way. Miss Jenkins was obliged to break the news of the whirlwind romance to her former boyfriend, Darran Phillips, a financial adviser with a convertible Mercedes.

It is sometimes said that couples grow to resemble one another, in the same way as pets and their owners. William and Ffion seem to have reached that apotheosis of togetherness already. When the first photographs of them were published, there they were with their wavy blonde hair - his fetchingly receding, of course, hers luxuriously abundant - and their flawless features, their similar shy smiles.

Alan Duncan MP, a close friend of Hague's, described Miss Jenkins as an "absolute cracker". She is also regarded as formidably intelligent. Equally significantly, perhaps, she has provided her Yorkshire-born fiance with an entree to Welsh high society - the "crachach", as it is quaintly known.

The term, which translates as "petty gentry, conceited upstarts and snobs", refers to the network of influential Welsh-speaking families who run Wales's public bodies, quangos and institutions. In less polite circles, they are known as the Taffia. They make up the elite of Welsh public life - a strata of society described by Kim Howells MP as "probably the most effective back-scratching organisation outside of Sicily".

They include Geraint Talfan Davies, Controller of BBC Wales and a governor of the Welsh College of Music and Drama. There is Wynford Evans, chairman of the Bank of Wales and former chairman of South Wales Electricity, not forgetting, of course, Emyr Jenkins, father of the future Mrs Hague, who is chief executive of the Arts Council of Wales, former director of the National Eisteddfod and an elder of the Crwys Presbyterian Church of Wales.

It is from these circles that Miss Jenkins hails. The couple have different backgrounds, although they converged later on. Hague, son of a businessman who runs a soft drinks firm, had a comprehensive education, while she went to a leading Welsh public school. Both are Oxford graduates. Miss Jenkins studied English at Jesus College; Hague gained a first in politics, philosophy and economics from Magdalen. She went on to a degree in Welsh at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth; he to a high-flying job with McKinsey, the management consultants.

Ffion is described by friends as a quiet, studious woman who came out of her shell at university. Fellow members of the Welsh Society at Oxford recall her being taken to hospital after an evening of high spirits led to her being accidentally stabbed in the leg by a ceremonial sword.

While Miss Jenkins pursued a career in the civil service, Hague became an MP at 27, going on to become parliamentary private secretary to Norman Lamont and then pensions minister.

His betrothal represented the high point of his acceptance by Welsh society. When he was appointed, he knew how difficult it was for Welsh secretaries from England to be taken seriously in the principality.

Previous incumbents had been lampooned as English overlords who spent as little time as possible across the Severn. The Labour MP, John Morris, a former Welsh secretary himself, poured scorn on the choice of Hague to fill in for Redwood after the latter resigned to fight John Major for the leadership. "Not since Caligula made his horse a senator has such a ridiculous appointment been made," said Morris.

But Hague was determined to clasp Wales to his bosom. He regularly journeyed between Westminster, his Yorkshire constituency and his new fiefdom - a 1,000-mile circuit that became known as The Hague Triangle.

He visited hospitals and factories, climbed Mount Snowdon and strode the Pembrokeshire coastal path, staying in modest bed and breakfasts. He signed a deal with a South Korean electronics company that created thousands of new jobs. He even supported the Welsh rugby team against England.

With the Conservative defeat in the election, events have moved on and, for Hague, the stakes may be higher. If he persuades fellow Tory MPs to skip a generation and elect a youthful leader to lead them back from the wilderness, Wales will cease to figure so large in his life. If he fails in his ambitions, he is likely to secure a front-rank post in the Shadow Cabinet, which could be a different portfolio.

Miss Jenkins was with Hague at Michael Howard's Belgravia flat earlier this week when the two men hatched a deal over champagne to run for the leadership together. By the next morning, Hague had changed his mind. But while he may have ditched the political dream ticket, the fiancee of his dreams seems likely to remain by his side.