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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK

Hangover in Hague's backyard

The morning after the night before in William Hague's backyard. BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley takes the temperature.

It rained last night, and the "Vote Hague" sign which welcomes you to the former opposition leader's Richmond stronghold has not weathered the storm well. It is in tatters.

In the true blue Georgian market town itself, news of William Hague's resignation was only slowly spreading as the working day begins.

Setting up her home produce stall, Jacqui Christie looks taken aback by her MP's lightning-quick fall.

"I am shocked," she said. "I'd have thought he would have stuck with it, had more guts."

The no-nonsense citizens of Richmondshire might like the dry Mr Hague, but Ms Christie guesses his popularity might be more thanks to the status he gives to his rural constituency.

"He's funny, he used to make me laugh. But my husband says the Tories would only get in if they had another leader, and I agree."

His poor personal standing in the national opinion polls should have been a spur to Mr Hague rather than a reason for resigning, she said. "I really thought he would stay and do what he had to do to change people's minds about him."

Boy wonder no more

Bookshop owner Bob Ions said Mr Hague had already made inroads to changing the nation's view of him, once entirely mired, he thinks, in the image of the cocky speech of a 16-year-old before Mrs Thatcher at the 1977 Tory conference.

"He's thrown off the Boy Wonder tag," he said. "I've been pleased how he's debated with Tony Blair. I would have liked to have seen how he would have done on a televised debate like they do in America."

Mr Hague is a regular visitor to the shop ("If you want to know his reading habits...ask him," Mr Ions said, only letting on that the MP buys mostly politics titles).

"He's just like you see on TV, he's certainly not putting anything on. Richmondshire certainly likes him, judging by the vote.

"We're missing out on a good prime minister, he has great potential."

Some people in the town's cobbled streets had a sneaking suspicion that it wasn't entirely what Mr Hague said during his time as Tory leader, but how he said it.

"It's his accent - he's a Yorkshireman, isn't he? That doesn't play well down south," says self-employed painter and decorator Brian Martin from his ladder. "He was always on a hiding to nothing anyway."

Hair apparent

At the hair salon the first customer of the morning was being shampooed.

"People in the south definitely didn't like the accent, we're different up here," says Maureen Harrison, peering out through wet hair.

"I expected he'd resign, it's a very brave move."

However, his decision to step down may have been one of the things he did right in recent weeks, she said.

"He shouldn't have concentrated on the euro. Issues like health and education are more important."

Stylist Leanne Goodall says Mr Hague may have made a different kind of mistake - the birthday card he sent to welcome her as a first time voter only bore a facsimile of his signature.

Perhaps a deft lick of his pen might have swelled his local vote even further.

No-one in the town admits that the civic pride has been knocked by their member's step into the party's wings.

Leader of the Toy Party

"It's nice to have the opposition leader as your MP. But we've had leading lights as our MPs before," says John Meynell. "We had Leon Brittan when he was in the cabinet."

Mr Meynell doesn't class himself as true blue, but is more than happy to have the 40-year-old remain as his MP.

"He's a good man and very personable. Speaking as a fellow Yorkshireman, I liked his forthright way."

Mr Meynell has been running his own popularity poll on behalf of Messrs Hague and Blair.

The shopowner bought a bulk load of squeaky dog toys modelled on the two men.

"I've only got 50 left of the 1,000 I stocked. Sales of the two have been surprisingly even.

So how does one analyse this unpromising data.

"I've got a feeling that people buy a Tony Blair one just to watch it get savaged by the dog, while the Hague one goes up on the mantelpiece.

"I suppose the Hague one will be a collector's item now."

To a young politician recently savaged at the polls, this must be little consolation.



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