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The BBC's Laura Trevelyan
Profiles William Hague
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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 06:58 GMT 07:58 UK
Profile: William Hague

Andrew Marr

The Conservative leader has one enormous personal advantage - a rubbery, tough, resilience that has seen him through political setbacks that would have crushed a lesser man.

Where does it come from?

His real heroine was, and remains, Lady Thatcher

Not his famous judo sessions, or even his marriage to Ffion, gloriously happy though that seems to be.

It comes from his self-belief, an utter, calm conviction of his own rightness and perhaps destiny, that has taken the Yorkshireman from 'that' speech at the Tory Blackpool conference when he was 16, to the leadership of his party at 36 - via, of course, two years in the Cabinet as Welsh Secretary.

Lady Thatcher - William Hague's role model
Lady Thatcher - William Hague's role model

Such self-confidence and precocious success would make many politicians cordially disliked, by colleagues and foes alike.

In Mr Hague's case, however, it goes with a sunny, almost impish, good humour and private openness which has won him admirers across the political spectrum.

Commons terror

He is at his most confident in the Commons chamber, where he has become one of the star performers of recent times, an often funny and sometimes devastating cross-examiner of the prime minister.

His optimism and confidence has communicated itself to a once-demoralised organisation which is now, once again, spoiling for a fight

His prosecution of New Labour as a government of liars has, inevitably, embittered his relations with Mr Blair - who, in turn, portrays the Tory leader as an irresponsible, bandwagon-hopping extremist.

What is certainly true is that the Hague leadership zig-zagged in style and content for a while, as he searched for the right mix of Thatcherite toughness and new thinking to rally a party exhausted by its 18 years in office and shattered by the 1997 defeat.

He went through an early 'yoof leader' phase, wearing a much-caricatured baseball cap and visiting the Notting Hill carnival.

Hague at Notting Hill
Hague's appearance at the Notting Hill carnival was widely ridiculed

Then, as the struggle continued, the wispy hair was shorn in favour of a severe 'buzz-crop' and a steelier Hague emerged.

As an early supporter of John Major in his campaign for the party leadership, Mr Hague has seen at first hand the damage that a divided party can do to an uncertain-seeming captain. His real heroine was, and remains, Lady Thatcher.

Eye on the ball

From the moment he became leader, he had a three-stage strategy.

The first stage was to rally and shore up the party, with a clear line against membership of the euro in the next parliament and a clear policy on smaller government and tax-cutting.

The second stage was to reach out to disaffected former Tory voters with popular conservative messages - such as his 'save the pound' campaign, his support for Tony Martin, the farmer convicted for shooting a burglar, and his hard line on bogus asylum seekers.

Hague speaking
Hague's sees the Keep the Pound campaign as a populist vote winner

The third stage was then to widen the Tory appeal with policies on schools, health, policing and tax.

Overall, this is what he has stuck to.

There have been sudden shifts of direction, such as over the tax pledge, watered down to take account of the possibility of recession.

There have been embarrassing mistakes, such as the cannabis row which overshadowed the 2000 conference and led to a long wrangle between Tory 'libertarians' and traditionalists - the 'mods and rockers' rumpus of that winter.

Internally, Mr Hague has been criticised for a secretive and closed style of leadership, failing to bring enough of his front bench team into his inner circle. At times, the bubbling rivalry with Michael Portillo, the other obvious potential leader, has been rather too obvious.

Now, he takes the Tories into the election with spending plans ridiculed by the government and a European policy his critics say would produce an early confrontation with the rest of the EU.

Real achievements

Yet any criticism of the Hague leadership has to take account of how badly the party was battered when he took command, and what might have happened to it otherwise.

The party was already shifting to the right, and the push for more party democracy has accentuated that.

He has prevented the Tories breaking apart over Europe.

He has skewered a popular Labour government again and again.

And above all, his optimism and confidence has communicated itself to a once-demoralised organisation which is now, once again, spoiling for a fight.

Perhaps the most telling assessment of that achievement is that, whatever happens at the polls, most observers expect the Tory leader after William Hague to be... William Hague.



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