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Thursday, June 17, 1999 Published at 02:16 GMT 03:16 UK


UK Politics

The worst job in politics

Hague presides over the shadow of power but not the substance

Winston Churchill said being shot was a kindness compared to it. Neil Kinnock called it purgatory and after two years of doing it, it looks like William Hague has finally got the hang of what has been called the worst job in politics: leading Her Majesty's opposition.

After covering the top jobs of state, film-maker Michael Cockerell has turned his attention to a uniquely British job, leader of the opposition - a post that pays the handsome sum of 100,000 a year for laying into the government.


Michael Cockerell: "The Tories had got used to being the party of government"
But the Tories have not found the transition from holding office to opposition an easy one to make.

Mr Cockerell told BBC News Online how William Hague had to invent the job himself.

He said: "They haven't had an election defeat like that since 1906, and like Hague said, AJ Balfour isn't around to ask anymore.

"The Tories had got used to being the party of government, it's nearly 20 years since they were last in opposition.

"A lot of the party didn't even know where the opposition leader's rooms were in the House of Commons."


[ image: Mr Hague had his own despatch box made in blue, not ministerial red]
Mr Hague had his own despatch box made in blue, not ministerial red
To help cope with the culture shock of leaving office and his ministerial red box behind, Mr Hague "had his own despatch box made because of the severe withdrawal symptoms", said Cockerell.

For two months Michael Cockerell was given fly-on-the-wall access to Mr Hague, taking his camera into the heart of Tory HQ to watch the Tory leader's team plot his party's return to power.

As the cameras were rolling Mr Cockerell describes the scenes as, "the various different shadow ministers were all trying to catch William Hague's eye and suggest that they had the subject that would be the most effective" to bash the government with.


[ image:  ]
In one telling scene Tory chief media spokesman Nick Wood looks over the morning papers commenting on what he sees as the success of a speech by the Tory Deputy Leader, Peter Lilley, the previous day.

But six weeks later not only does Mr Lilley's speech lead to his dismissal - after sparking an internal party row that lasted for weeks - Mr Hague decides to scrap the post of deputy leader as well proving being in opposition is not easy, but it never has been.

Mr Cockerell shows how before the image consultants gave Maggie a make-over the Iron Lady was not quite hitting the mark.

Current leader of the House, Margaret Beckett, described Margaret Thatcher's early performances in the Commons as leader saying, "she was so bad it was embarrassing".


[ image: Sir Edward Heath: No comment on the current opposition leader]
Sir Edward Heath: No comment on the current opposition leader
But whatever they did for Mrs, now Baroness, Thatcher, Sir Edward Heath spoke against the black arts of the ad-men.

He told Mr Cockerell: "Advisors always suggest you ought to dress up in some way or other, or ride horses - they always have these odd ideas. Unfortunately, some leaders take notice of them."

The former PM mentioned no names but one baseball capped figure did spring to mind.

Image, it seems, has as much impact with the voters as polices and the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock came close to admitting to Michael Cockerell he was doomed never to lead his party to power.


[ image: Neil Kinnock: Failed to present the image of prime minister to some]
Neil Kinnock: Failed to present the image of prime minister to some
"There was this innate feeling among some voters that they could not see me as prime minister: it's just there - in the biochemistry.

"And it's a pity but it's a fact of life I recognise," he said.

The only way to stop being leader of the opposition is to convince the voters you look like more like the next PM than current the PM - a task performed with skill by Tony Blair in the run-up to the 1997 election.


[ image:  ]
But Tony may have to watch his back if he wants to avoid another stint in opposition. Professor Peter Hennessy says William Hague "is better than people think".

And like a school teacher passing comment on a promising pupil Commons Speaker Betty Boothroyd said Mr Hague does rather well. "Yes, he's very bouncy. I think he does very well at Prime Minister's Question Time."

So William Hague may one day join every other post-war Tory leader and take up residence in Downing Street.

Mr Hague at least is convinced his entry into Number 10 is only a matter of time: "I do take heart from previous leaders of the opposition, how they've led their parties back from shattering defeats to victory in the face of endless cynicism and I'm going to do the same."

Who knows? Perhaps he will.

How to be leader of the opposition will be broadcast on BBC Two on Saturday 19 June at 8.10pm BST.





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