Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Hague Saw What the Press Did to Mr Major. He Won't Let Them Do It to Him

Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Hague Saw What the Press Did to Mr Major. He Won't Let Them Do It to Him

Article excerpt

It has always been amusing to observe the way in which Tory leaders' party conference speeches are drafted; who tries to take the credit, and to whom the credit is actually due. As you drift around the foyer of the main conference hotel, you will come across at least a score of people who claim to have made a contribution. Such claims can always be discounted. The real work is usually done by a handful of harassed individuals. In previous years, one did not bump into them in the foyer; they rarely had time to leave the leader's office. Last year, I heard George Bridges, then one of the political secretaries in No. 10, declining a tempting dinner invitation. 'No hope of that, I'm afraid,' he said regretfully. 'I'll be lucky if I get ten minutes off this week and I won't be able to take it all at once.'

Mrs Thatcher was an especial nightmare to her speech-writers. She never believed that the drafting process was complete until she had tossed and gored several persons. She only knew one thing about any draft that was presented to her: it was not the one she wanted to deliver on Friday. The drafting and redrafting continued almost until the moment that she arrived on the platform. Only then at last would her secretaries, half-dead with exhaustion, rush into the press office with the final text for printing.

One of her principal speech-writers, Ronnie Millar, was knighted. In reply to a letter of congratulation, he wrote that he had at first been somewhat embarrassed to think that he would now be ranked with the men who fought at Crecy and Agincourt. But then he recalled some of the all-night sessions over curling sandwiches, with La Thatch becoming more and more impossible. He decided that if he exchanged reminiscences with his fellow knights in a better world, they might well conclude that they would rather face the French cavalry than write speeches for Margaret Thatcher.

In one respect, John Major was easier to work for; he was calmer. But he was equally hard to satisfy. A man who was never at ease with the English language and who hated delivering a printed text, he was constantly striving for a way of expressing himself. Like his predecessor, he wanted to put his soul into his conference performance. Unlike her, he never succeeded.

It is all very different this week. On Tuesday evening, George Osborne, Mr Hague's political secretary and in charge of organising the text, managed to find a couple of hours for dinner. By Wednesday morning, the speech was still only in a second draft, and already at the stage when those who had seen it were saying, 'First-rate: it's all there - only needs a bit of tightening.' It seemed quite likely that there would be only one more draft: the final one.

The difference is easy to explain: William Hague. Most of the words that the new leader delivers this Friday will be his own, and the structure of the speech will adhere closely to the one he outlined in his first meeting with his speech-writing team back in mid-September. Mr Hague's other qualities are yet untried, but he is an orator. He is indeed the first natural orator to lead the Conservative party since Churchill. Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher became formidable performers, but it did not come naturally to them, any more than it did to Harold Wilson. Unlike poor Mr Major, who sometimes sounded as if he was swimming in treacle, words come easily to Mr Hague. This will help him to recover from a shaky September.

We have just had to endure one of the most unnatural periods of British political history. …

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