The 'Boy Wonder' Who Bounced Back
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because in politics, some survive long enough to get a second chance.
By Robert Meakin
As Conservative Party members gathered in the seaside town of Blackpool, England, they could smell a return to power on the horizon. Their old Labour foe, Harold Wilson, had shocked the nation by quitting as prime minister the previous year, and there seemed every chance that Margaret Thatcher — the first female British political leader in history — would deliver them victory when the election finally arrived.
Sure enough, Thatcher would be elected prime minister 19 months later, and remain in office for more than a decade. But back on Oct. 12, 1977, the Conservative faithful had briefly been introduced to a more distant future in the form of a 16-year-old northern schoolboy. Displaying a statesmanlike confidence well beyond his years, the young William Hague told them in no uncertain terms that the decades ahead would be for his generation to define. For many, it was a day when a new British political star was born, but for Hague himself, it was a day, and a performance, that would come back to haunt him.
By the time he was foreign secretary, he’d matured into an impressive, rounded statesman … we’d missed out on a pretty impressive prime minister.
Paul Osbourne, political commentator
The self-assured teenager met with roars of approval when he cheekily told those present: “It’s all right for some of you, half of you won’t be here in 30 or 40 years’ time!” While Thatcher watched approvingly, Hague enjoyed taking colorful aim at the “promised land” of current Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, adding with gusto, “which must surely rank as the most abhorrent and miserable land that has ever been promised to the people of a nation.”
Thatcher wasted no time feeding the hype, describing Hague as “another young Mr. Pitt” — a reference to William Pitt the Younger, who had become PM at the age of just 24 in 1783. Having only applied to speak at the conference that morning, the Conservatives’ new “Boy Wonder” was hogging television screens up and down the country. “I really didn’t know what a big thing I was doing,” Hague has recalled on BBC Radio’s Reflections. “[Nightly British show] News at Ten followed me to my first day back at school. Crowds of hundreds of pupils followed me around … I was offered a newspaper column.”
A career path ending up in the House of Commons was inevitable. Elected to Westminster in 1989, he steadily rose through the ranks, eventually being recruited to join Prime Minister John Major’s Cabinet at the age of 34. But he had joined a Conservative government living on borrowed time. In less than two years they would suffer a colossal defeat to Tony Blair’s Labour, and it didn’t take long for colleagues to identify Hague as a possible savior.
Elected to take charge of the party in June 1997, Hague, then 36, knew all too well the odds were stacked against him. With Blair in the ascendancy, the Conservatives looked tired, divided and hopelessly out of date after 18 years in power. To make matters worse, Hague suddenly found himself a target of personal ridicule. Regularly repeated footage of that 1977 speech was now widely seen as evidence that he’d been little more than a peculiar political nerd in his youth. “That TV appearance certainly didn’t help,” agrees London-based political commentator Paul Osbourne.
Subsequent disastrous efforts to bond with British voters, including a famously ridiculed claim he could down 14 large beers as a teenager, fueled the belief that this was a young man out of his depth. Heavily beaten by Blair in the subsequent 2001 election, Hague’s unhappy leadership was over after four years. “I feel I did the night shift leading the Conservative Party,” he has since explained. “I had no remaining ambition to be prime minister.”
Badly bruised by his time in the political spotlight, he retreated to a more pleasing life as a historian, after-dinner speaker and TV personality. Clearly more comfortable in his own skin as the years passed, his intellect and piercing wit — always in evidence, even during his darkest days as leader — were increasingly admired.
Having resisted calls to return to the political front line, he was eventually lured back by modernizing Conservative leader David Cameron, becoming the latter’s foreign secretary in 2010 — now armed with an authority and confidence most of his colleagues, and many of his opponents, envied.
Hague’s time had finally arrived. “The second coming of William Hague was a genuine revelation,” acknowledges Osbourne. “Whatever his politics, by the time he was foreign secretary he’d matured into an impressive, rounded statesman … you realized we’d missed out on a pretty impressive prime minister.”
Decades after he had first wowed Conservative delegates at the age of 16, Hague was regularly hailed as the greatest British political orator of his generation. Relaxed enough to poke fun at his previously geeky image, he lightheartedly admitted, “As I never want to be leader of my party, I don’t have to try to be normal anymore.”
Now Lord Hague, he chose to leave the political battlefield for good in 2015, at just 54 years old, preferring to write books in his Welsh country mansion, where he lives with wife Ffion. The “Boy Wonder” of 1977 never fulfilled Thatcher’s prediction that he would reach the highest office in the land, but this onetime Conservative casualty bowed out a winner.
- Robert Meakin Contact Robert Meakin