The contrast was accidental and yet compelling. As David Cameron prepared to deliver his speech on Europe last week, and then cancelled it because of the hostage crisis, his Foreign Secretary was in Australia. That geographical distance, as Cameron became engulfed in two titanic foreign policy dramas – the one sweeping away the other – was both unfortunate and emblematic of William Hague’s unique and unusual presence at the top of the Government.
He could not have been farther away, as foreign policy soared to the top of the political agenda; and, quite a lot of the time, his political mind could not be more removed from the hyperactivity and multi-layered calculations of ambitious senior ministers.
Of course, it was neither design nor Hague’s fault that he was in Australia on official business when Cameron planned to deliver his speech on Europe (before postponing it to respond to the situation in Algeria). The sudden scheduling of the EU address was the consequence of a panic-stricken frenzy in No 10. Equally, no one could have foreseen the hostage crisis. Hague was unlucky to be so far away, on a trip planned months in advance. Nonetheless, the symbolism is vivid: a Foreign Secretary, his political ambition sated long ago, on the other side of the world, as the Prime Minister takes an ominously swashbuckling lead on foreign policy.
It is tempting to regard Hague’s detachment as part of a neatly symmetrical flaw at the top of the Government. On one hand, there is an ambitious Chancellor who is too busy, performing at least two pivotal roles; and on the other, there is a Foreign Secretary so laid back that he’s in Australia as the Prime Minister defines the Government’s foreign policy in dramatic circumstances. But such symmetry is rare in politics and does not apply in this particular case.
Although on a few occasions Cameron has been frustrated, and a little bewildered, by Hague’s Buddhist-like qualities, he is extremely fortunate to have a senior colleague who has already been a leader and who does not want to be one again. The Prime Minister knows it, too. When Cameron turns to Hague for advice, he appreciates that the response will be a considered view and not one laced with other calculations.
This was not always the case when Tony Blair sought the views of Robin Cook or Jack Straw. Both Cook and Straw were formidable figures in their own rights, each at times dared to develop his own distinct take as Foreign Secretary but always had to factor in his own continued ambition, dependent on Blair’s patronage. The dangers of being assertive were apparent when both Cook and Straw were removed unexpectedly from their posts.
Prime Ministers, increasingly constrained in domestic policy, tend to seek greater definition as leaders in foreign policy, regarding the Foreign Office either as an extension to No 10 or as an awkward irritant that can be an obstacle to their own plucky heroism.
Unusually, Hague can be candid with Cameron without fearing for his political future. He does not seek a future. The overwhelming defeat for the Conservatives under Hague’s leadership in 2001 has had almost as big an impact on him as the ecstatic response to Michael Portillo’s defeat in 1997 had on the then-hero of the Tory right. Portillo returned to politics briefly, without passion, and is now a thoughtful, determinedly likeable television presenter and pundit.
Hague resigned from the leadership in 2001, went off to learn the piano, write books and become a much sought-after speaker and presenter. It is possible that his current role will be his last in politics. Sometimes such an unusual sequence makes him awkwardly detached, slow in responding to sweeping events. But it gives him the very big advantage of being able to form judgements on the basis of experience rather than future ambition.
On the Today programme this morning, Hague sounded exhausted, doubtless still getting over a flight from Australia and an around-the-clock schedule since. But he was also measured. He cited the rebuilding of Somalia as an example of how to help failed states, and was at pains to depict the current crisis on the biggest and most complex canvas, reiterating emphatically that it was a “complete illusion to think we are omnipotent”. Tonally, he was similarly restrained when discussing Europe with Ukip’s Nigel Farage on the BBC at the weekend – so much so that the mischievous Farage almost managed to portray the Foreign Secretary as a Europhile.
I am not suggesting that there are significant differences between Cameron and Hague. There are not. The Foreign Secretary supported the intervention in Libya and would not rule out further military action. Both are Thatcher’s children – Eurosceptic and on the right. Originally, Hague was much keener on the war in Iraq than Cameron was. But leading his party to electoral slaughter in 2001 and serving as a Foreign Secretary unburdened by ambition have made him a subtler and deeper politician than he was.
In his Commons statement today, Cameron spoke with potentially dangerous, Blair-like resolution of a “generational struggle against an ideology”. Tomorrow, he speaks on Europe. On both highly sensitive and complex issues, Hague might have cause to urge on him a more cautious approach. At least he will be free to do so and Cameron will listen.
By Steve Richards
Established as one of the most influential political commentators in the country, Steve Richards became The Independent’s chief political commentator in 2000 having been political editor of the New Statesman. He presents GMTV's flagship current affairs show The Sunday Programme and Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.