Steve Richards: The rise and fall of William Hague

Sure-footed and quick-witted in opposition, William Hague was expected to be a Cabinet star. But now even close colleagues are questioning whether he's really cut out for power.

Thursday 10 March 2011 01:00 GMT

A political reputation totters precariously in the Libyan storm. Last May William Hague arrived at the Foreign Office as one of the most popular and authoritative figures in the Conservative Party, a key player in the Coalition. Now, in the latest twist of his curiously oscillating political journey, there is speculation about whether he will be in his post for much longer. Politics is turned on its head. Hague, a master of ridicule, is ridiculed. Seemingly calm and solid, he has become part of a damaging narrative for the Government as a whole that poses potentially lethal questions about its competence.

Occasionally British politics throws up minor mysteries. The performance of Hague – not only in relation to Libya but since he became Foreign Secretary – is one example of these tantalising cases. His bumpy ride at the Foreign Office could not have been anticipated. Hague is in some ways the most tested member of the Cabinet and is armed with a natural array of political talents. He has not served as a minister for as long as Ken Clarke, but he was a Cabinet minister in the dying days of the Major era and then leader of his party for four arduous, demanding years. Compared with the pasts of Messrs Cameron and Osborne, Hague is a heavyweight veteran.

He is also quick witted, calm and intelligent, a Harold Wilson without the transparent paranoia. Calmness in particular is fairly unusual at the top of British politics, not least when the media is in full cry. Such was his effortless command before last year's election that some in the Conservative Party and the media speculated that Hague might even be Cameron's first Chancellor. Yet this week, during his statement on the preposterously bungled SAS venture in Libya he was not only criticised by MPs, but mocked by them as well.

As part of his formidable political repertoire, Hague can mock effectively, combining the right amount of wit with a dose of forensic teasing that really hits home. On Monday, the shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, not known for his humour as a public performer, managed to get MPs to laugh with him and against Hague. In response the Foreign Secretary appeared curiously flat, conveying unintentionally a sense of disenchanted distance. The reversal of roles was eerie and striking.

Even some of those inside No 10 who are admirers of Hague are beginning to wonder what is happening. They are not angry, nor do they go out of their way to target him. But one or two are a little bewildered as to why he has stumbled. They are caught up in the mystery.

There is a second important dimension to the puzzle. Hague has held another big job in British politics and had a traumatic time of it. As Leader of the Opposition after the 1997 election, Hague led his party to a calamitous defeat four years later. In the early stages he was ridiculed for wearing a baseball cap and for not looking especially cool on a visit to the Notting Hill Carnival. His election campaign in 2001 was absurd. He seemed to spend most of his time in Dover, warning voters to save the pound. Later Hague admitted that he had fought a crude core-vote strategy out of fear that the Conservatives faced even bigger slaughter if he had not. He resigned the day after the election and announced he was going to take piano lessons, an early sign, perhaps, of a belated hunger for life outside politics, from a figure who had been a political addict from his early teens.

Yet there are significant mitigating circumstances in both cases. When he became leader in 1997 his party was in a terrible state, reduced to a rump, demoralised and yet still defiantly right wing. Tony Blair was on a honeymoon that for a time excited all parts of the political spectrum. It would have taken a Tory titan to make much headway.

Now, as Foreign Secretary, Hague is accused of not being in control of events. This is unfair. He cannot be in control. No one knows what will happen next in Libya, nor can anyone pull strings in the confidence of bringing about a certain sought-after outcome. Hague is in no position to do so; the Foreign Secretary of a country still traumatised by Iraq and, in terms of logistical might, incapable of running a proper public transport system – let alone leading the downfall of Gaddafi. Quite a lot of the cock- ups have been operational rather than strategic.

Nonetheless a pattern is forming. Hague has struggled to a surprising extent in two important political roles for which he seemed to be suited. As Tory leader he was responsible for a series of misjudgements that made matters worse than they might have been; from his relentless focus on Europe to his promise of tax cuts – a Tax Guarantee that descended from the grey skies suddenly at a Tory conference in Blackpool – that were not credible.

In the current situation, a Foreign Secretary must exude calmness, yet also a sense of urgency. This is not easy, but Hague's Buddhist-like calm has appeared to verge on near-indifference, a perception reinforced when things do not run according to plan.

A suspicion of indifference is fuelled because Hague has not spelled out, in opposition or in power, his vision of a British foreign policy. He has displayed a welcome and brave pragmatism in relation to Europe, but has not explained, beyond a few references to his defeat in 2001, why he no longer preaches a more eurosceptic message. Although originally a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, he appears to have moved towards a greater expediency in relation to Britain's capacity to intervene, an expediency that provoked the more crusading Michael Gove to challenge him at a recent Cabinet meeting. But there has been no defining exposition. As former Labour minister has noted, the Foreign Office will deliver, but only when it knows what the Government wants delivering.

So part of the mystery is why we should be mystified. Why did we expect Hague to thrive as Foreign Secretary, when he struggled to make his mark as leader of his party? The answer reveals as much about our political culture as it does about the elusive personality of the Foreign Secretary.

Very shortly after Hague resigned as leader of the Tory party, his popularity soared. As leader he was dismissed as being superficial when he deployed his wit against Tony Blair. Cleverly, Blair used to declare, "He might be good at the jokes" implying that this was the limit of Hague's offering as a politician. While Tory leader Hague stopped being witty. But once he had resigned in 2001, his wit was hailed as a great weapon. Voters wanted more. When he was a guest on radio phone-ins, listeners said they wanted him to be the next leader of the Tory party having been a previous one, too. Similarly, when he delivered speeches as leader, Hague struggled to fill a hall. After he had resigned, he was one of the most in-demand speakers in the business, earning substantial sums on the after-dinner circuit. He also wrote critically-praised books that sold well.

Hague became more of a political star when he stepped back from politics. Suddenly those old damaging photos of Hague in a baseball cap confirmed his sense of fun and were not ridiculous at all. The same person was being viewed through a gentler prism. He must be used to it. Famously, when he spoke at a Tory conference in the 1970s as a precocious teenager, he was praised as a future star. He is always being praised when he is not in the spotlight as a minister or leader.

It seems that voters like politicians with a performer's streak when they are not functioning in an orthodox political context. Tony Benn was viewed with widespread hostility when he was a Cabinet minister and potential leader. Nowadays he can sell out theatres with his one-man show. In this Cabinet, Vince Cable is another example. In Hague's case he became a former leader who was seen as a possible future one as well. Now that he is in office again, faced with complex, almost impossible decisions, he is derided.

The unusual sequence is bound to have had an impact on him. Politicians are driven partly by ambition. The hunger to be a leader, or at least a big player, is part of the energetic drive of most senior political figures. Hague has no such hunger, as he has been a leader already. In some circumstances a lack of giddy appetite can be a source of immense strength. Cameron often turned to Hague for advice in opposition, knowing he had been through the same experience – and reassured that Hague did not want his job. But the combination of Hague's instinctively laid-back approach and his lack of any further political ambition has made him look a ghostly figure when he needs to be a commanding one.

Hague would not be human if he did not reflect occasionally that he earned more money, had a more varied repertoire and was adored by voters in the period between his all-consuming political tasks. This does not mean an early departure from politics is inevitable, or even likely. One of Hague's guests at a recent weekend at Chevening detected no lack of enthusiasm for the political vocation. Instead Hague gave the impression that he was enjoying the role of Foreign Secretary.

Irrespective of whether all ambition is spent, Hague has one of the most stimulating jobs in government at a time of great international flux. Evidently he can walk away because he did so in 2001 after losing the election. But to do so with undue haste would not fit the complex pattern of Hague's strange career. At the very least his well-developed sense of political history will urge him to stay. What would Hague the biographer make of a figure who briefly led the Tory party to defeat and was then a short-serving Foreign Secretary who stepped down at the first whiff of trouble? At the same time, Cameron is unlikely to sack him, even if there is a degree of concern within No 10 about his current demeanour. Almost certainly he is in his last top political job, but he could be there for some time.

Although Hague is trapped in a media narrative from which there is no easy escape, his troubles have wider implications. Very early on in its life questions are being raised about the Government's competence, and not just Hague's – the theme of yesterday's Prime Minister's Questions. Various ministers have been in the spotlight, including Nick Clegg, Michael Gove, Caroline Spelman and Andrew Lansley. Now it is Hague's turn. In relation to Libya, control of policy has not always been clear. Is No 10 or the Foreign Office in charge? Is the policy one of cautious conservatism or Blair-like interventionism? As Hague totters the Government totters too, a coalition of two parties led by a trio of youthful politicians – Cameron, Osborne, Clegg – who have never been in government before, facing economic and international crises.

In such circumstances there will be more cock-ups. If they occur in Hague's brief, the pressure on him will grow. Yesterday even his absence at Prime Minister's Questions caused a fleeting stir. Where was he? As it turned out, he was at Buckingham Palace on a long-arranged engagement.

The past few days have seemed a long way from his glory days as a presenter on Have I Got News For You, an author of the highly praised biography on Pitt the Younger and, as a former leader, the best speaker at Tory party conferences in the final years of Cameron's leadership in opposition. Hague, the lifelong political addict, is a model for our anti-politics era. He had more authority when he wielded no power.

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