William Hague tells Fraser Nelson that the Tory party has changed completely since he led it — and that the best advice he has given David Cameron is dietary
William Hague had almost cracked Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata when David Cameron called him back to front-bench politics. He has been teaching himself to play the piano since he resigned as party leader; he drank a bottle of champagne that night and woke up to find that a concerned neighbour had left him a teach-yourself book so that he could fill his time. In those five years he learnt not just how to play, but how to sail and how to make £630,000 a year advising companies and giving speeches. He has given this up to become shadow foreign secretary, and returns to front-line politics a changed man.
‘I have discovered there is a whole different way to live out there with less of the pressure and stress of political life,’ he says, stretching out on the sofa of his Westminster office. He has always looked 40, but is now 45 and seems to be purged of his old demons. ‘I have given up wanting to be prime minister. I will be very happy to be foreign secretary in the next Conservative government, but political ambition is no longer what makes me happy.’ It is Hague II, a politician reborn.
But he comes with all the brainpower of Hague I and has lost none of his brilliance at the dispatch box. He is, according to one Labour MP, ‘the only man you’d return to the chamber to hear’. But there is an element of camera-shyness in his make-up. ‘I’m better at giving speeches than appearing on television,’ he concludes. As his speeches fetch up to £10,000 on the after-dinner circuit, this is not as modest as it may sound. His job now is to forge a foreign policy for a party which, for years, has not been taken seriously enough to need one.
Hague is a hawk. Unlike Michael Howard, he says that he would still have voted for the Iraq war, knowing what he knows now. ‘Can we say it was wrong to remove Saddam Hussein? No, I don’t think we can.’ And he has no emollient words for Iran. ‘I disagreed with Jack Straw saying that military action in Iran was “inconceivable”,’ he says. ‘I’m not advocating it, but he was going too far and unnecessarily weakening our position.’
Euroscepticism is stamped in Hague’s DNA and that of the Cameron Conservatives — but Hague suspects that the argument is won and the Middle East will be the main foreign policy issue for the next Conservative government. It will, he says, ‘face the same dilemmas’ as Tony Blair does today. Indeed, on Iraq, Iran, Africa, Afghanistan and America — on almost everywhere apart from Europe — the only differences are in emphasis. Hague makes no apology for this. ‘It would be a fundamental error in foreign policy to go about looking for reasons to disagree with the government.’
Indeed, he says that Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, has not received enough credit for his work in Darfur. ‘He was out there dictating part of the peace agreement a few days ago,’ he notes with admiration. ‘Something important has changed in the Conservative party. When I was leader, we used to sit down every morning and ask, “How will we embarrass the government today?” because we were in that guerrilla warfare stage. Now we sit down and ask, “What would we do if we were the government?’’’
One question the party may be asking after election day is whether they should enter a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Unlike Cameron, Hague will discuss the idea. ‘Over the next couple of decades, there is now a greater likelihood of hung parliaments and parties having to co-operate. It’s just the way the electoral arithmetic works out,’ he says. But he points to ad hoc co-operation rather than formal coalition. ‘There are some sensible Lib Dems, but there are others whose instincts are very left-wing. I have no idea whether the split Liberal party, and one now with rather weak leadership, would be willing or able to work with a minority Conservative administration.’
He is strikingly confident that Labour will not win the next election outright. ‘I said there would be four phases of New Labour: fascination, admiration, disillusionment and contempt. And I think we have just in the last few weeks arrived at contempt. I said that in 1998 and thought all this would take just two years. In fact it’s been eight until we’ve arrived at what’s always seemed blindingly obvious to me about this government. And this means a serious chance of winning the next election.’
When asked what is the best advice he has given to Cameron, he throws his head back and rakes his memory. His choice has nothing to do with policy, tactics or even jokes — but how a leader should treat his own body. ‘Despite being one of the busiest people in the world, you have to arrive at the election campaign fitter and fresher and calmer than ever. That requires the right sort of food, sleep and exercise, which needs rigorous policing. I had sinusitis, famously, within a year of being leader. But I sorted myself out. I got Seb Coe in to create a whole regime that allows you to work hard. Whatever else went wrong after that, I wasn’t tired.’
He says little about this intriguing ‘H-Plan diet’, save that it involves vegetable soup. But isn’t that fattening? ‘Not if you exercise,’ he grins, drumming his stomach. And has Cameron followed the advice? ‘I think so, because he’s bearing up very well. He doesn’t look tired.’ Further inquiries show that Hague has been spreading his lifestyle gospel to shadow Cabinet colleagues. ‘He told me, “You should manage your stress, let Seb put something together for you,”’ laughs one. ‘I told him I liked stress and didn’t need any of his namby-pamby nonsense.’
But what they do need — and are hugely grateful for — is Hague’s expertise. He comes not with Heseltine-style nostalgia but as a man who recently fought Blair and lost. The motto from his old News of the World column — ‘He knows; he’s been there’ — holds good for his regular meetings with Cameron’s inner circle. And his future ambition is literary, not political. His biography of William Wilberforce comes out next year, and he plans to turn to Pitt the Elder next.
He says that such writing is done ‘at dead of night’ and the rest of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 will have to wait for another era. ‘I now don’t have time. I’ll have to go back and finish it in the event of political disaster.’ Then he corrects himself; that was the old, pessimistic Hague talking. The new one has a different outlook. ‘I’ll finish it at the end of the next Conservative government, many years in the future.’
Fraser Nelson is political editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 20, 2006