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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 09:28 GMT 10:28 UK

Hague's early ascent

William Hague's resignation comes after what many Conservatives believe were four years of valiant effort to eat into Labour's commanding lead - in the opinion polls and in parliament with a landslide majority.

He was elected leader in the wake of Labour's 1997 triumph and billed as the man who could unite a party which had suffered bitter division over Europe.

He defeated former Chancellor Ken Clarke to become Tory leader at the age of 36.

Mr Hague had seemed destined for high office since making a precocious speech to the 1977 Tory party conference at the tender age of 16.

Early Hansard-watcher

He admitted later that as a teenager he was devoted to keeping up with the latest Hansard - not the usual reading matter for an adolescent.

He went on to be president of the Oxford Union during his time there and became the MP for Richmond in Yorkshire eight years after leaving university.

An early backer of John Major after Margaret Thatcher's resignation, Mr Hague rapidly accumulated political capital and was rewarded with a place in the government.

But he had only four years' ministerial experience, culminating in two years as secretary of state for Wales, before the 1997 election.

His rapid rise to his party's highest office in many ways mirrored that of his patron Mr Major.

John Major's rapid ascent through stints as foreign secretary and chancellor on his way to Number 10 was also later followed by a Labour landslide and his own resignation.

A key difference, however, is that Mr Major also won a general election in 1992 - surprising almost everyone, except himself, in the process.

Drive and vitality

Few have questioned Mr Hague's drive and vitality through the last parliament and during the election campaign, not to mention his resilience.

Despite staring electoral disaster in the face throughout, he never appeared to succumb to despair or to allow his campaign verve to flag.

And he has had to put up with much ridicule, personal and political, in his time as Tory leader - over his party's popularity, his baldness, his accent, his interest in politics as a teenager.

His speech to the 1977 Tory conference generated much mockery over the years.

He also attracted brickbats after appearing in a baseball cap at the 1997 Notting Hill Carnival, in an effort to demonstrate his party's "inclusiveness", and for telling a style magazine he had drunk 14 pints a day in his youth.

Excellent Commons performer

All those who have witnessed Mr Hague in action at Westminster agree he is an excellent despatch box performer - extremely witty, a nimble debater and regularly rattling Tony Blair at prime minister's questions.

But the success of his skills there failed to translate into a lift in his reputation beyond the House of Commons.

Positive coverage generated by his marriage to Ffion and his friendly disposition also failed to do his ratings much good.

In standing down from the leadership, he leaves the party in much the same state it was in 1997: in crisis, with a parliamentary party barely the size of Labour's majority and in desperate need of a leader who can give it hope not only for unity but for survival.


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