"THERE are no vile stories about William," said a woman who studied with him on a business course when he was 20. "Unless you want to use that old ageist thing."
William Hague MP, the new Secretary of State for Wales, the youngest cabinet minister since Harold Wilson, will always be saddled with comments about his tender years. The tired gag runs that at 34 he looks 44, and acts 64. He's been an Identikit Tory from the womb, we hear, bottle-fed sherry, reading Hansard in his pram.
There is some envy in these comments, and the jibes began at that speech at the party conference in 1977, when the schoolboy who looked like Jimmy Osmond spoke of reversing the evils of socialism and rolling back the frontiers of the state. No blush was detected in his puffy cheeks as he received his standing ovation. He said that those who worked hardest should get the greatest rewards, which inspired Margaret Thatcher to call him "possibly another young Pitt".
Hague is not prime minister yet, but the summer has not yet passed. His rise has been swift and steely: MP for Richmond, North Yorkshire in a 1989 by-election, parliamentary private secretary to Norman Lamont in 1990, junior minister at Social Security in 1993, DSS Minister of State a year later, and John Redwood's replacement on Wednesday (he voted Major). We also know he favours capital punishment and listens to the singer Meatloaf, which may amount to the same thing.
One searches for the early clues, and the myth becomes reality: his love for the Tories preceded puberty. This was more surprising because he was born in Wentworth, a Labour stronghold (he lost his first shot at Parliament there in 1987). His father Nigel made soft drinks; mother Stella brought up William and three older sisters. All but William are married.
Mrs Hague says it all started when he was 13, with the 1974 election, and there is still wonder in her voice: "We've always been Conservative, but never active. He suddenly decided to listen to every news bulletin."
Unlike others in the family, he was never interested in sport. "He liked pop music, but never went over the top with it. Before the politics he was very interested in war games and chess." Is she surprised at his elevation? "He's still very young," she reasons. "But he's very committed."
David Tiptaft, chairman of the Yorkshire area Conservatives, says his wife signed up Hague for the young Tories when he was 15, after which they recognised "a good analytical mind, right-wing but pragmatic, a long- term thinker". But the conference speech still came as a surprise: "We hadn't grasped the depth of his intelligence."
Hague attended Wath-on-Dearne Comprehensive, and found a soulmate in Robert Godber, deputy head and politics teacher as well as an unsuccessful Conservative candidate in 1970. "William was supporting the Tories as naturally at 13 as other boys were supporting Sheffield Wednesday," he says. "Extremely industrious. A wonderfully intuitive grasp." He also recalls a balloon debate in which Hague spoke as Harold Wilson. "He already had the voice, but was so keen he also found a pipe, macintosh and dog."
His teacher says he wasn't dull at all: lots of friends, a stint in the choir for Princess Ida, always the first to climb the peaks on a trip to the Lakes - something we may now load with symbolism.
He got into Magdalen, Oxford with four As. He invited Godber down to hear him speak as president of the union and told him: "I've been told I can't be president and hope to get a First. That was too much of a temptation."
They still keep in touch, the minister dropping by for meals.
Hague became a management consultant at McKinsey. "After that speech, I was all ready to dislike him," says a former colleague Crispin Simon, "but I'm afraid he was surprisingly agreeable. Amongst a group of people who were ambitious and thrusting, he was one of the most down to earth, not particularly showy or flash, and he didn't operate in a political way."
"It was clear that he was very ambitious, but he was also good at keeping his counsel," says Juliette Mead, who attended the MBA course with him at Insead near Paris, the closest Europe gets to Harvard Business School.
"He was pleasant enough, though not someone you would really warm to. He didn't have very many intimate friends. Some people on the course had an endless stream of girlfriends. William didn't. Nor boyfriends."
Intellectually she found him very strong, and was impressed that his Yorkshire background kept him level-headed.
She recounts a theoretical debate in which the class was split into the different constituents of a European Parliament, and William was the leader of the Italian Communists.
"It was a witty speech and utterly convincing. I'm not saying he has no political integrity, but he can easily take any side of an argument. It was clear this might stand him in good stead."
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