William Hague

William Hague – why should anyone give a monkey’s?

The stream of speculation, inference and behind-the-hand sniggering about William Hague’s personal life shows no sign of abating any time soon. His Special Adviser, Chris Myers, has bowed to the pressure and resigned, and certain sections of the press seem intent on keeping the ‘news’ cycle rumbling for as long as is humanly possible.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not in the least bit interested in the bedroom arrangements of the Foreign Secretary. The Cold War is over, and the threat of blackmail is not the national security issue it was back in the time of the Profumo Affair. Perhaps you wouldn’t believe it if you persist in reading some of Britain’s more questionable newspapers, but we do actually live in the 21st Century now, and it shouldn’t make the blindest bit of difference whether someone is gay, straight or undecided. Hague has denied the rumours and, in a move which seems regrettable in the extreme, felt forced to reveal details of his wife’s recent miscarriage to demonstrate to the world that he isn’t a ‘non-playing captain’.

I’m not William Hague’s biggest fan. Perhaps it was his precocious appearance at the 1977 Tory conference when he was a mere boy, but to me he will always be a whiny little Thatcherite who went on to become one of the least effective Opposition Leaders this country has ever had, while actively encouraging the malign influence of Michael Ashcroft on the British electoral system. Having said that, the man deserves a private life.

Some (although certainly not all) British newspapers have a dubious reputation both at home and abroad when it comes to this kind of thing. The practices of self-regulated tabloid newspapers have long left a lingering bad smell across public life in this country, and are often coupled with the unspoken hypocrisy that the media rarely turns its gaze inwards. Perhaps that’s part of the hidden agenda with all this nonsense about William Hague. At the same time that this ‘story’ continues to do the rounds, it seems that only The Guardian has found the time or the inclination to scrutinise David Cameron’s combative Director of Communications, Andy Coulson.

Coulson, a former editor of the News Of The World, continues to be implicated in the disgraceful bullying and phone-tapping practices which occurred under his leadership but the media seems strangely reluctant to tell the story and, at the same time, ask whether he is a fit and proper person to be heading the Number Ten communications operation. It strikes me that Andy Coulson’s working practices are of direct relevance to his work on the government payroll, and that this is a story that needs to be told. Hague’s sleeping arrangements, on the other hand, would appear to bear no relation to policy decisions on Europe, the Middle East or the continuing involvement of British troops in Afghanistan.

While speculation about Hague’s future is fostered in certain quarters, Coulson continues to set the government’s news agenda, largely untouched by a seemingly passive media who don’t see any problem. The Hague and Coulson scenarios both have one thing in common – both men should be judged on their professional actions alone. Something tells me that’s probably too much to expect.

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The Winning Formula?

With the entry of Diane Abbott into the Labour leadership race, the choice before party members suddenly appears to be a wider and more diverse one than before – the other declared names are David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, John McDonnell and Andy Burnham. The fact that there is a contest at all makes this a more different scenario from the 2007 ‘shoo-in’ of Gordon Brown, and Abbott’s candidacy brings a welcome shot of diversity to the equation.

All credit to Labour for that but, realistically, the chances are that the next leader of their party is going to be called either ‘Ed’ or ‘Miliband’ or both, thus conforming to the current major party trend of electing a fresh-faced (perhaps not in Balls’ case) forty-something white male leader, with a full head of hair and an easy television manner. This is perhaps Tony Blair’s most lasting legacy to the political landscape of Britain.

When John Smith died so suddenly in 1994 politics was a very different place to the ‘New Politics’ of 2010. It was a post-Thatcher world where John Major had played the ‘safe pair of hands’ card and won the 1992 General Election in the process, Smith had used his substance and intellect to win the Labour leadership, and the fledgling Lib Dems were headed by the flamboyant Paddy Ashdown. 1994 changed everything. While most of the outside world assumed Gordon Brown would be next in line, Peter Mandelson and the New Labour Focus-Groupies had other ideas. Tony Blair won the – post-Granita – leadership election by a landslide (as a member of the party at that time, I must confess that I voted for him) and things were never the same again.

Blair was fresh-faced, energetic and non-threatening to Middle England. He looked like the sort of chap your average ‘soft Tory’ would be happy for their daughter to bring home. In policy terms, the programme was so light there was very little risk in ‘giving the guy a chance’, and the staged battle over Clause Four showed a man very much in charge of, what had previously seemed, an unleadable party. An historic landslide victory at the 1997 General Election confirmed the new leadership model as a winner.

There have been numerous exceptions to this trend of ‘natural’ selection, of course: William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith & Michael Howard for the Tories, Ming Campbell for the Lib Dems, and indeed, Gordon Brown for the Labour Party. Unfortunately the one common strand between these party leaders is that they were all deemed to be failures. Contrast their fortunes with those of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the Daddy of them all, Tony Blair, and it starts to look like there really is a winning formula for the selection of a leader: as long as the policies (where they exist) don’t frighten the horses, go for the young-looking guy with the nice suit.

I’m not saying that any of these men are idiots. To lead a major political party you need intelligence, determination and an extremely thick skin, and all the successful leaders have had these qualities in abundance. Indeed, I’ve often thought that history will be kinder to Tony Blair than any of his contemporaries were. I believe that, despite his many policy failures, he will come to be seen as the great politician of his era, a communicator without equal in the early part of the 21st century. I just think that there may well be women, ethnic minority politicians and people over 60 who have all of these qualities and more.

Will a woman lead a major political party again any time soon? Will the job fall to anyone over 60? Will the chances of any baldies (like me) be forever ruined by association with Hague, Duncan Smith and Kinnock? And what chance have we of following America’s inspirational presidential lead and electing a black Prime Minister? The ‘New Politics’ is all very well, but perhaps there are still a few things to be learned from the old.

Ashcroft – Hague’s favourite airline

The Tories are currently, without the slightest hint of irony or self-awareness, doing their best to give the Labour Party a good hard shoeing over their links with the trade union Unite. This has, of course, come to the public eye as a direct result of the BA Cabin Crew strike, a story which gives the Conservatives an increasingly rare opportunity for a two-pronged attack on the government.

Firstly the Tories have the chance to highlight British Airways as a success story from the ‘golden’ era of mass privatisation (of course they gloss over the disasters of rail privatisation or the selling off of public monopolies which left my part of the world with the highest water bills in the country). BA was, for the last government, a shining airborne phallic symbol for the ‘success’ of Thatcherism, deregulation and the markets.

The second part of the Tory attack is to use this industrial dispute to try to paint a picture every bit as bleak as the infamous “Winter of Discontent” of 1978/9. This is self-evidently ridiculous. The stories from 1979 (I can just about remember it) were of piles of uncollected rubbish and the dead lying unburied in morgues. In 2010 a few holiday-makers will be greatly inconvenienced – annoying if you’re one of them, but hardly the end of the world as we know it.

But perhaps what is most surprising is the Tory attempt to turn this issue into a point-scoring exercise on party funding. Their faces redden as they talk of Unite “owning” the Labour Party, and distorting the electoral process by piling all that money into the marginal constituencies. Perhaps the theory is that if they go in hard enough on the trade unions the wider world will forget all about Michael Ashcroft and his ten year bank-rolling of the Tory marginal constituency operation. It’s nearly as laughable as the Tory claim to be the party of the NHS.

I’m not a Labour member or supporter but I can clearly see the difference between an organisation which passes on political donations on behalf of its membership, and a single, off-shore, tax-avoiding donor. Sure, there are flaws with the unions’ political levy, but that process is considerably more transparent than Michael Ashcroft’s tax affairs have been for the last decade.

British Airways used to fly under the slogan “The World’s Favourite Airline”. Michael Ashcroft has, for some time, been the Tories’ favourite airline. The Shadow Cabinet have flown to Israel, Mali, China, Cuba and the Czech Republic – all on Ashcroft’s Falcon 900 private jet.

The most frequent flier has been William Hague, a man whose judgement now appears under serious scrutiny. A close friend of Ashcroft’s since 1998, Hague has never given a straight answer on the Tory paymaster’s tax position. Now that the dirty truth is finally out in the open questions are being asked of Hague’s honesty, not just with the public, but also with the leadership of his party. When did Hague know that Ashcroft was still a non-dom? Did he tell David Cameron? If so, why has Cameron spent  his leadership dodging straightforward questions on Ashcroft?

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the BA strike, the most extraordinary thing for me has been the stratospheric level of Tory hypocrisy over the issue of funding. Never mind stone-throwing, Tory preaching on this particular topic is about as sensible as firing up one’s private jet in a glass house.

Another view: Edwin Squire – Corporate Airline v British Union

Can someone – anyone – give a straight answer on Ashcroft?

Another day, another story about Lord Michael Ashcroft, frequent-flyer and chief benefactor to the Conservative Party. This time the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, has accused the Tory hierarchy of being “evasive and obfuscatory” over the tax status of their Deputy Chairman and effectively given everyone 35 days to come up with some answers.

Strangely, the onus appears to be on the Cabinet Office (rather than the Tories) to outline what undertakings were given by Ashcroft and those acting on his behalf (most notably the then Leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague) when the Tories were fishing for a peerage for their largest donor back in 2000. Ashcroft, who had previously been a resident of Belize for tax purposes, agreed to become ‘domiciled’ in the UK as part of the conditions for his ennoblement.

Since then it has been less than clear whether the Noble Lord has actually complied with this gentleman’s agreement. In theory the Treasury should be receiving its annual share of Ashcroft’s multi-billion pound fortune, but in practice the only place his money clearly shows up is in the coffers of the Conservative Party, as the lion’s share of their General Election fighting-fund. No one – least of all David Cameron, George Osborne or William Hague – seems capable of giving a straight answer on this.

It might help if the media (with a few notable exceptions) were actually prepared to ask a few straight questions to the Tory leadership. If Labour had a similar donor and were anywhere near as ‘evasive and obfuscatory’ you could bet your last Belize Dollar that the press would be all over them like a rash. In the case of the Tories, however, this issue is treated like an unsightly boil on the face of a dinner host – everyone can see it is there but nobody wants to ruin the evening by being so impolite as to mention it.

Time is running out for these questions to be asked (and answered). In a little over three months Ashcroft’s money may well have played a key part in a Tory election victory. And who will ask the awkward questions then?

See also: Some are more equal than others