William Hague exit could be precursor to changing of guard in Tory party
Strategists have concluded that the PM needs to promote women and soften the party’s image before the next election.
William Hague’s resignation as foreign secretary changing for 10 months to play the role of leader of the House is the most dramatic symbol of a changing of the male guard in the Conservative party.
His replacement will be announced on Tuesday, but the strong suggestion on Monday night was that the post will be handed to another middle-aged man, Philip Hammond, the defence secretary and a figure already versed in foreign affairs.
Yet the big message of the biggest recasting of Cameron’s government since his election in 2010 is a determined effort to feminise, soften and rejuvinate the image of the Conservative party.
Lynton Crosby, the party’s senior strategist, has come to the view that probably the only serious barrier between a Tory party, and another election victory is the Tory party itself.
The sense that the Tory party remains on the side of a male and rich class out of touch with ordinary voters’ values asphyxiates, or at least pollutes, so much of what Downing Street wants to do to persuade centre-ground voters to give them a second term.
A reshuffle, confined to changing and feminising some ministerial ranks, or even jettisoning the older cabinet members such as Owen Patterson or Ken Clarke, was hardly going to cut through with most voters. So Cameron has ordered the night of the long stilettos as male after male minister – mainly, but by no means exclusively, on the left – have been retired. In the process some of the brighter, less Eurosceptic, minds in government have departed, including David Willetts, Dominic Grieve and Damian Green. As a byproduct, faltering Tory support for the European Convention on Human Rights might have finally bitten the dust.
Disgruntled male Tory MPs on all political wings will analyse whether the women promoted in the reshuffle improve the party’s performance or its image.
There is a specific difficulty about Hague’s decision to retire, one that he apparently took last summer. It has been widely reported that the chancellor, George Osborne, would like after the next election to become foreign secretary, taking charge of Britain’s negotiations with the European Union over UK’s future relations.
Consequently, anyone that assumes the post of foreign secretary now – even if they have the political gravitas of Hammond – may find themselves cast in the status of caretaker.
With serious crises threatening Iraq, Ukraine and Israel, this might not be the time to have a foreign secretary that has been appointed to keep the seat warm for Osborne.
Hague will not desert the political field.
He will remain as first secretary of state, a member of the National Security Council, and will be the prime minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict.
He also leaves the Foreign Office in better, more confident, spirits than might have been expected when the era of austerity started. But it is also clear that he would want to return to his great passion of writing – his two biographies of William Pitt the Younger and Wilberforce have been widely praised.
His wife, Ffion, always had the veto about how long she would put up with his punishing schedule of life in the twilight world of diplomacy.
Hague himself claimed that in his four years as foreign secretary he “transformed Britain’s links with emerging economies, significantly expanded our diplomatic network and the promotion of British exports, restored the Foreign Office as a strong institution, and set a course to a reformed European Union and a referendum on our membership of it”.
Yet his legacy at the foreign office is subtle. He himself likes to describe the essential craft of the patient diplomat by recalling Lord Salisbury’s description. The great former foreign secretary said: “Diplomatic victories are made up of a series of microscopic advantages: of a judicious suggestion here, of an opportune civility here, of a wise concession at one moment and a far-sighted persistence another, of sleepless tact, immovable calmness and patience that no folly, no provocation, no blunder can shake.”
Hague used this description with which to toast Hillary Clinton at her farewell dinner in Washington in 2013, leading Clinton to describe him more prosaically as the David Beckham of toasting.
More seriously, Hague, despite his fearsome reputation as a Eurosceptic ideologue, worked the corridors of Brussels in pragmatic style, and equally found little difficulty working alongside the Democrat-led White House. Some of his closest friends admit they are doubtful that he truly favours Britain’s departure from the EU.
In his speeches he adopted a consciously post-Blair foreign policy, implying the national interest was no longer inspired by values but instead a hard headed commercial interest. Equally the environmental causes that animated David Miliband, the last Labour foreign secretary, were elegantly downplayed.
Sentimental bonds with historic allies would not stand in the way of forming alliances with the BRIC countries. It was fitting that his last major overseas visit before he announced his resignation was in the company of Osborne to India in search of contracts and a fuller business relationship.
Although he made no public complaint he was a lot less enthusiastic about foreign aid than some, possibly the position many diplomats adopt as they eye the comparatively gargantuan budget of the Department for International Development and continually cut back their own.
Perhaps the creation of the National Security Council will be one of his lasting legacies, alongside the inspired work he has done on sexual violence in war, his own personal crusade that will survive his departure from public office.
If the impression he left was of a safe pair of hands, even a technocrat, that is no disgrace, only a mild surprise.
His successor may be a tougher figure, and one that is eager in the time given him to make his mark.
- The Guardian,