Magazine article The Spectator

Hague's Not for Turning

Magazine article The Spectator

Hague's Not for Turning

Article excerpt

SO, William: there's an election coming; if not in May, then all too soon. You've been leader of Her Majesty's opposition for four years. You're somewhere between ten and 20 points adrift in the polls, and the focus groups deliver verdicts such as 'a bit of a wally'. What's gone wrong?

`The evidence is that there is huge dissatisfaction with the government, but people have not necessarily decided to vote Tory,' Hague replies stoutly. If he is heading for an election cull, he is taking it remarkably well. But if he lost by 100 seats or more, wouldn't he feel that the public had nominated him the Tory party's weakest link, and be obliged to slope off the set? The moon face remains amiable, implacable. `I'm planning for success, and, if I did have any such thoughts, I wouldn't share them. No one ever succeeded in anything by having 87 scenarios for failure.'

Asked why New Labour still commands the battlefield, he puts it down to the golden economic legacy, and `the Tories being in power for so long that people were prepared to give Blair a decent chance'.

Such is the medicine that Conservatives gulp down to palliate their unpopularity. But maybe the real situation is worse. Perhaps the public, for all the dissatisfaction with and imperfections of this government, really rather likes this Blairite mixture: a dollop of right-on social attitudes, a spoonful of extra taxation sweetening the free-- market mixture?

For the first time, his expression flickers. The word 'Blairite' produces an unmistakable wince. `If there are so many people keen to have many more years of Labour government, we would meet them somewhere. You don't meet them. There is disillusionment and growing contempt.'

There are two Tory views of the Prime Minister. One is that he's a consummate professional, a class act to be envied and emulated. The other is that he is a content-- free hologram, a cynical joke practised on the gullible British people. What does Hague think? 'A mixture of the two,' he says. `Blair is an able man. But he is a fraud as well. He says the first thing that comes into his head. He says things that are not true and he knows they are not true. He says that the House of Lords blocked the Hunting Bill. He lies about not having increased taxes. He is a man who doesn't tell the truth. The country has never had lower standards for integrity, honour, decency.'

Throughout this tirade, he looks entirely controlled, as if he were delivering a setpiece denunciation. There is no sign of passion, let alone the raw animus that afflicted relations between, say, Kinnock and Thatcher. Doesn't Blair make him feel anything as basic as anger or dislike?

'I don't take politics personally and I don't have strong hatreds. That's not me.' So would William and Tony get along if they weren't on opposite sides of the fence? `We are not the same sort of people, really. He's more metropolitan and I'm more provincial. He's more emotional than I am. My approach is to lead people through a difficult situation, much more than "let's burst into tears about everyone's problems".'

Oh, come on, William. This stuff about metropolitan versus provincial, liberal elites versus decent folks, Ilkley versus Islington: it's all a front, isn't it? I mean, here you are, former Oxford Union president and McKinsey management consultant. You lead the Conservative party in your thirties. You're a member of an essentially urban political party, but still trying to come across as some horny-handed son of the land? It won't wash. Meanwhile, people have lost any clear idea of who the real Hague is.

`I'm a mixture and that's a good thing,' he replies, equable as ever. 'I prefer "liberal" and "elite" as terms of abuse to "metropolitan". The only time I use "metropolitan" in a negative way is when people are out of touch with the countryside. Things are imposed on the country by people who live in town. It's fair enough to say that these attitudes are naive or harmful. …

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