Hague the Older: from precocious teenager to Conservative leader and beyond
To mark the 25th anniversary of his election as Conservative leader, Lord Hague tells Sienna Rodgers about his youthful gamble, current Tory dissatisfaction with Boris Johnson and why he has left politics
Aged just 16 and looking like a young boy dressed in his father’s clothes, William Hague delivered a speech at the 1977 Conservative conference that senior politicians might have envied. Well-crafted and witty, it conveyed loyalty while handing down a cutting critique of the party’s record in government. He was applauded enthusiastically by those in the hall – future prime minister Margaret Thatcher most of all. The young Tory knew then he was destined for high office.
“I did think that, yes,” Lord Hague tells The House. “I did feel very at home in the political world.” He was determined to give politics a try and suspected, rightly, that he would enjoy being an MP – although he always had other interests.
“It turned out to be a considerable mistake, of course, to be going up against Tony Blair at the height of his power”
“I was seen at that time as being ultimately consumed by politics, because I was such a precocious teenager. But in fact, in my early 20s, I got very interested in the business world.” Working for Shell and McKinsey at that time, deciding whether to become a politician or businessman was a close call. It didn’t take long, however, before a 28-year-old Hague seized the opportunity to represent the safe Tory seat of Richmond (Yorks).
After Labour swept to power with a landslide result in 1997, Hague became the youngest leader of a major political party for 200 years – since another William, Pitt the Younger. (Hague later became his biographer.) “It turned out to be a considerable mistake, of course, to be going up against Tony Blair at the height of his power. But the process of winning the leadership was very exciting; thrilling,” he recalls of his victory 25 years ago.
“I was 36 at the time – ridiculously young to do it. But it meant that by the age of 45, I would either have got to the very top or I would be free to do other things. Sometimes you have to roll the dice. That was my attitude.
“Actually, I don’t regret it. Clearly, in strict career terms, if one’s sole object in life is to become prime minister, it’s better to wait for the best moment. On the other hand, there are lots of people who have waited to become prime minister, and you just never know when fortune favours the brave. On that basis, I took the gamble.”
Hague freely admits he was inexperienced and not ready for the job. But he also suggests the modernisation project he embarked upon would have been tough for anyone: “The party was quite set in its ways and not easy to change.” The depth of the Tories’ 1997 defeat meant he was left with the longest-serving MPs in the safest seats, making reform trickier.
Asked what he would do differently as leader in hindsight, Hague points to that modernisation effort: “We sometimes faltered in it, and it sometimes looked as if we were departing from it. And it really had to be consistent.” He moved to require that a shortlist of four Tory candidates would need to include one woman, a target he felt confident of taking the party with him over, but in hindsight feels was too unambitious. “If I was doing it again, I would rather get party rules approved by 70 per cent and get something more radical than get them approved by 90 per cent and they’re less radical.”
Hague faced other difficulties as leader, from Blair’s personal popularity to New Labour’s domination of the news agenda. Above all, he says: “The world was in a state of – compared to today – contentment. Not to say everybody was happy with everything, but there was no great crisis. There was global economic growth. There was peace, apart from localised wars… Nobody was angry about anything.”
Although perhaps harder, his challenge then was similar to the one Keir Starmer has today: turning around a party’s fortunes after a painful thrashing at the ballot box. Hague thinks the Labour leader has confronted the party’s anti-Semitism issues effectively and strikes a “much more reassuring figure than Jeremy Corbyn could ever be”.
Hague does have a fundamental criticism, however – and some advice for how the party can do better. “A big missing thing, in my view, is standing for the future,” he says. “Conservatives can win elections by standing for the future, or by having people more worried about the Labour Party than they are about the Conservative Party, or by just doing OK and people don’t want to risk any change. The Labour Party has to be the future.” The obvious route is for Labour to carve out a strong agenda around education, science and technology, he argues.
But he sympathises with troubles around policy-making in opposition. “If we came up with any good idea, given that Tony Blair wasn’t very ideological, he would just take it anyway. So, we were left without the idea. And that is somewhat happening to the Labour Party today.” The windfall tax on energy firms was advocated by Labour for months before the government adopted it in the most recent package to address the cost of living crisis, for example.
One of the values has to be trust and integrity. And clearly that has become a problem area
Rather than focus on policy, Hague now sees the ability to convey values as much more important. “I don’t agree with the values of Donald Trump. But all that people are voting for when they vote for him – apart from performance – is certain values they think he has.” He says the same point applies to Corbyn in 2017 and to Thatcher.
Values are where Boris Johnson is going wrong, Hague concludes. “One of the values has to be trust and integrity. And clearly that has become a problem area.” Not only that, he is concerned by a lack of consistency. “It appears as if when the chief of staff changes at No 10, the direction of policy changes. But then the MPs think, so, what is the set of values we’re pursuing here?”
It is not only the 41 per cent of Tory MPs who expressed no confidence in Johnson’s leadership in the recent vote, Hague points out; many within the grassroots are also unhappy. “That’s a very distinctive feature,” he says. “The activists are normally very supportive of whoever is the leader. I felt as leader I enjoyed this fantastic support from the party activists, even though we had enormous problems.” Given this, he feels the current situation is unsustainable.
“One way or another, when you’ve got that level of disaffection in your own party, it won’t end well. I don’t know how it will end, but it will end in some sort of car crash in the Cabinet, or some revolt of the activists, or a change in the rules to have another leadership ballot, or an election defeat.”
The current presents a contrast, he says, to Hague’s high point in politics: serving as foreign secretary alongside David Cameron and George Osborne. “At the top of government we really, honestly and daily, discussed everything together,” he remembers fondly.
“David Cameron’s natural style was to really indulge his senior colleagues. ‘Come round on a Sunday night, and we’ll just talk about everything. Give me your honest view of everything.’ It was a pleasure to go to work.”
While still interested in politics, Hague has taken a leave of absence from the House of Lords. Asked why, he responds frankly: “I’ve moved on to a different stage of life: I give speeches, I go to dinners, I advise businesses, I go out with my friends. I’m enjoying myself. I’m not going to sit there voting for hours and hours when it doesn’t make as much difference as it did in the House of Commons.” He also happens to think his column in The Times offers a more influential platform than the Lords – a sentiment likely to irritate former colleagues, even among those, perhaps particularly among those, who agree.
Hague is unlike his old counterpart Blair, who often looks as if he is itching to return to power. “I feel frustrated for the country, but I don’t feel personal frustration. No, I’m different from Tony Blair in that regard,” he says.
“I think politicians do fall into different categories. It’s a personality thing more than a political thing. Some always wish they were back there doing it, and some really enjoy the rest of life so much that you wouldn’t ever, for a moment, want to go back. And I fall into that second category.”
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