William Hague: Conservative Party Leader 1997 - 2001 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

William Hague: Conservative Party Leader 1997 - 2001

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A caricature of former Conservative Party leader William Hague

William Hague became Conservative Party leader in 1997 after Labour's landslide defeat of John Major's Tory Government. At the time he was largely unheard of but nonetheless rose to power, declaring a new start for the Conservatives. However, after four years as party leader, the June 2001 general election resulted in another crushing defeat for the Tories, and Hague, given that in Parliamentary terms he had only gained one seat over four years, felt obliged to resign.


Hague was born and brought up in Yorkshire and continues to serve as Member of Parliament for Richmond. While attending a local comprehensive, he created a sensation with his infamous speech as a schoolboy speaker at the Conservative Party Conference. He subsequently took a first class degree at Oxford University and gained a distinction in his MBA at INSEAD. Hague spent five years as a consultant at McKinsey and Co before entering the House of Commons, where he was soon appointed Minister for Pensions. Under Major's government he was appointed Secretary of State for Wales and in 1997 took control of the party.

Divided Party

Hague's problems began from the moment he took up his position, inheriting a party with several significant divisions and political agendas. The 'Fresh Start' policy attempted to unite the party once again – working together they could propel the party from its electoral obliteration to a position where it could regain power at the next general election. However, his leadership soon became subject to dissent after a publicity visit to a theme park with colleagues including close friend Sebastian Coe. While it was designed to show that he was in touch with the voters, many saw it as a pathetic attempt to seem young, leading to MPs suggesting that he was 'juvenile'. A subsequent visit to the Notting Hill Carnival, the biggest ethnic festival in Europe, was meant to show that the Conservative party was not just Oxbridge-educated Caucasians, but many commentators instead suggested that the visit brought this fact to public attention.

While Hague preached about his 'Fresh Start,' he remained torn between modernising the party - consigning its past to history - and honouring the Thatcherism that had brought it so much success in the eighties. This split was in evidence in the party at large, as Hague suffered a PR disaster when Dennis Lilley made a speech about 'burying Thatcherism' and making the party more progressive on the same night as Hague and senior colleagues were attending a dinner in commemoration of 20 years since Margaret Thatcher had taken office in 1979. This created media frenzy with most newspapers supporting the view that this simply illustrated the unelectable nature of the Conservatives.

Even before Lilley's comments, Hague had found himself significantly further behind Tony Blair in approval ratings after Princess Diana's death in 1997. Upon the advice of Alan Duncan, Hague made a short, sombre and duly apolitical speech. In contrast, Tony Blair showed real emotion and pain and his phrase 'the People's Princess' took off across the country, depicting how much Blair was in tune with public sentiment.


On top of these errors of judgement, Hague also had to contend with the factions of his party that resented how close he was to Amanda Platell and Seb Coe, while alienating the rest of the party. There were further splits over policy for Europe, Section 28 policy and whether or not to accept monetarism. It was quite clear that Hague's plans for unification were falling to pieces, and just when it seemed things couldn't get any worse, there was the Jeffrey Archer debacle. In his conference speech, Archer had emphasised how he had the support of former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and the support of 'the next Prime Minister – William Hague.' As a result, when he was convicted of perjury, the accusations of sleaze that ravaged Major's premiership came back and Archer managed to effectively take Hague down with him. This made Tories such as Platell despair; they could see from the outset that Archer was a liability and that associating with him meant just waiting for an inevitable disaster.

The election of Michael Portillo in a by-election brought his return to the Commons after losing the safe seat of Kensington and Chelsea to Labour in 1997. Hague appointed him Shadow Chancellor and within days significant policy U-turns were seen as Portillo victories over Hague as the former began to assert himself and his claim for Party leadership. Portillo's new liberal thinking created a new faction whereby he and the Shadow Foreign Secretary allied in undermining Hague's authority. Furthermore, Ann Widdecombe and Kenneth Clarke managed to create even more factions, with the former favouring an outright ban and jail sentence for the possession of drugs (completely at odds with Portillo's new liberal ideas), and Clarke fronting the Tories' pro-Europe stance. Nonetheless, every week Hague would be able to put all of his party infighting to one side to grill the Prime Minister with each of his six questions at Prime Minister's Question Time.

Given all of the above, it came as no surprise when Hague entered the 2001 election as the firm outsider. The party was seen as being even more out of touch when it chose Europe as the principal selling point in its manifesto, proclaiming that voting for Labour would mean saying goodbye to the pound. However, this had little influence on voters, who were more interested in public services – the NHS and education – which were both focussed on by Labour's manifesto. Inevitably, the Tories were again trounced and Hague's four-year leadership proved unfruitful.


On paper, Hague did very little that was ultimately successful and very little that someone else would have been unable to do, making his leadership unequivocally unsuccessful. However, given the circumstances in which he took control of the party, there was very little he could have done differently, especially considering the wave of public support Labour were riding on. Ultimately, it is fair to say that anyone could have been as successful as Hague was, but they would have also been just as unsuccessful.

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