William Hague was in his mid-thirties when he left Government and the Wales Office behind him. By the time he returned to the Cabinet table and entered the Foreign Office, he was almost 50 - an age he reached earlier this year. In between, the public world of this gifted, witty, highly intelligent, rather old-fashioned House-of-Commons-man politician - for whom nothing in life had previously ever really gone wrong - was turned upside-down. Under his leadership, the party made next to no progress in the 2001 election: in the plain kind of language that is associated with his native Yorkshire, it was stuffed.
The man born to be Prime Minister became a man who has had his time. Hague left the front bench, wrote books, learned to play the piano, joined the after-dinner speaking circuit, went on Have I Got News For You. A question posed earlier this year, when he uncharacteristically released details of his and his wife's struggle to have children, was: has he lost his mojo? A more pertinent one perhaps is: did he ever get it back? Did he recover from the electoral humiliation of 2001? Has the right-winger who warned that the Britain was in danger of becoming "a foreign land" settled for living as a centrist, for seeing out his time as a great servant of his party?
Government certainly suits him: as immaculately turned-out as ever, he rises cheerily to greet us in an office so vast as actually to have an echo. On a shelf near his desk, a big picture of Ffion, his wife, is balanced out by one of the three men at the top of the Conservative Party: David Cameron, George Osborne, and himself. Let's try him on a matter that preoccupies our readers: the EU. The Prime Minister recently told the Spectator that the crisis in Europe gives "opportunities for Britain to maximise what we want in terms of our engagement with Europe". The magazine read that as code for the repatriation of powers. Is that right, and if so which powers? How much do we want back?
The Foreign Secretary trots nimbly though a list of aims that don't involve the repatriation of powers: holding down EU budget rises, staying out of future bailout arrangements. "So we take opportunities of those kind. So we will go on taking opportunities. I think it’s important to stress that at the moment, in the further changes to the Eurozone, the ramifications of the Greek bailout and so on, there is no further treaty change currently being proposed, so if those opportunities arise they are in the future." Ah: so is no work being done to prepare for such an eventuality? "Well, that’s where the Conservative Party stands, that what was in our manifesto and that’s what we believe in very much indeed."
"This is a coalition government though, and the opportunity to put forward those things in any case hasn’t yet arisen. So they’re not taken off the table, as far as we’re concerned, but it’s a coalition domestically and the opportunity to put those things forward in Europe is not yet there. So that will therefore depend on events and I don’t want to raise expectations of that in the near future." Hague clearly doesn't want to fling the door open to media expectation, but doesn't want to slam it shut, either, in the face of party opinion. "They got the Lisbon Treaty through in the end, to my great regret," he adds, "but it took years of doing so, as you recall, a series of referendums, having to do it in Ireland twice."
He is making the argument that other European Government don't want another treaty precisely because it would make referendums hard to avoid. So in the event of a further treaty, there'd definitely be one in Britain? "No, no, because there are treaties that don’t change the relationship of this country to the EU. For instance there will be a treaty coming up on the accession of Croatia, and under the terms of our Act, as it now is, that doesn’t trigger a referendum, and nor should it, because otherwise we would be holding a whole series of referendums on each country in the Balkans joining the European Union in the future." None the less, the Foreign Secretary is very, very proud of his EU Bill - or rather Act, since it has just gained Royal Assent.
Key to his case - and it has previously been backed up powerfully on ConservativeHome - is that the Government is now legally bound to deliver a referendum in the event of a Treaty proposing any further significant transfer of power. "Let’s put it this way, all of the treaties of the last 20 years, I think I can confidently say, Maastricht, Nice, Amsterdam, Lisbon, the failed constitution, all of those under the law that we have now passed would have had to have a referendum on them, if this law had been in place, with no ministerial discretion. It would have been mandatory to have a referendum on each of those occasions. So this is a pretty comprehensive piece of legislation."
We ask Hague if at the least he still wants the repatriation of powers spelt out in the last manifesto - in relation to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, Home Affairs and Justice, Social and Employment legislation? "That’s in our manifesto, that’s the position of the Conservative Party, yes, that’s my position," he says, before pointing out, inevitably, that they're not in the Coalition Agreement. "But I haven’t changed any of my views about the EU or the Euro - I made a series of speeches in 98/99 about the Euro, the burning building with no exits… I try not to point out, though I suppose I am now pointing out," - he adds, with a dry chuckle - "that that analysis was totally correct, I’ve been wrong about many things in politics but on the Euro I think I was right in every respect."
"However, it would be a disaster for this country if it suddenly collapsed." This takes us to the parlous state of the international economy, the call-my-bluff game between Barack Obama and Congress over the debt ceiling, the so-called "Arab Spring", and our military intervention in Libya and non-intervention in Syria." Hague is insistent that since the "debt overhang" makes further spending rises impossible in Europe and America, growth must be fired by more trade and less regulation. He says that "there is sometimes a problem in the US Congress, of course, on protectionist instincts and really it is a tragedy that we’ve not succeeded in completing the Doha trade negotiations". He lauds the EU free trade agreement, adding: "given this situation this is the agenda that needs driving hard. So I would say that to America."
He is, frankly, in a bad place on Libya - caught between insisting that, on the one hand, Gaddafi must leave office and, on the other, that there's no rush to get rid of him. "I don’t feel we should be under pressure to set a deadline for this operation. The time pressure is on him." Islamists, he insists, are "not there in the leadership of the National Transitional Council and the commitment of that Council to a democratic Libya is very clear." But there will be no repeat performance in Syria. "First of all, we are fully engaged in Afghanistan and Libya, so there is not an infinite capacity to do that. But secondly, it really doesn’t arise, there isn’t going to be sanction for international authorisation of military action with regard to Syria."
Is he concerned about the pivotal position of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? They vary enormously...I suppose I would express our view in this way, that it’s important for us to try and influence them, and therefore we should not just be cutting them off and saying we have no communication with them at all, and it is important for us nevertheless to encourage the growth of more liberal, with a small ‘l’, secular parties in countries like Egypt, so that people have a real choice in the elections and that they have time to make that choice." Hague is much too smart to shriek: "Yes! They're fanatics! We're petrified!" But that the Government urged the Egyptians to put back elections says much. So that other parties have more time to organise, we ask? "Yes, that’s right," he says.
On Pakistan, he is dismissive of threatening its Government or cutting off aid as a way forward. "When I was in Pakistan six weeks ago, I went to lay a wreath at the memorial to the police officers killed: more than five thousand of them since 2001, fighting terrorism." It's important, he says, to have a "long-term friendship with the people of Pakistan because we need that friendship just as they need ours...so our relationship requires us, yes, to often give them tough messages, but it also requires us to give them a lot of help. And if we cut off that help the threats to our national security would probably be greater...our long-term national security partly depends on Pakistan being a more stable, secure and healthily democratic place".
So far, so proper: while being questioned, the Foreign Secretary has shrugged off once saying that he'd like to live on a ranch in America: "Yes, I got diverted after that back into…[laugher] doing this", joked about removing a bust of Ernest Bevin out of his office (it now dominates the main staircase instead), and joked again about moving one of William Pitt in (the younger Pitt was the subject of Hague's first biography). He adds that "I’ve barely got reading a book in the pipeline! This is the busiest I’ve ever been in my life...Ten days ago I went back to my constituency for the first time in a month. That’s the longest I’ve been away from my constituency in the twenty two and a half years since I became an MP."
That precision with a figure; the attachment to those who've stuck with him; the Yorkshire rootedness - all this is very Hague. He says that he's "never had any regrets about standing" for the Tory leadership, though please note that "I’ve never had any regrets about resigning, either...I did the nightshift but that’s fine, and I’m in a better situation in politics now as a result of having done all that, because I’ve had that experience and I’ve been out of it, and have chosen to come back into it with that greater sense of freedom of having been through those things." But have we got the answer to the big question: what does he now want to achieve?
The reply we get is essentially institutional: the Foreign Office became "something of a mush" under Labour, which conducted foreign policy "as if the world was a seminar...but dealing the world is not conducting a seminar, it requires the advancement of our national interests, it requires a network of alliances being created, and particularly energetically beyond Europe and North America, with emerging powers". He wants "to put the Foreign Office back at the centre of government...so we’re sending many more diplomats to Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico, India and that, for me, is the difference that one can actually set out to really do things for the long-term, when you’re at the beginning of a new government imagine how different that is than being at the end of the last one."
And is this his last job at the top - or does he plan to go, in Lady Thatcher's phrase, on and on and on? "It’s a bit early to ask about that, isn’t it? I went to see my Saudi colleague in Jedda three weeks ago and he has now been foreign minister for 36 years since 1975 so I’m a bit of a young Foreign Minister [Laughter.] But on the other hand, of my 26 European colleagues, 14 of them have changed in 14 months, one a month. Let me put it this way, I came back to do this, to do foreign affairs. That was a happy co-incidence about what David Cameron wanted me to do and what I wanted to, what I was going to give up my books and my music and everything else to do, and in the way the team works at the top of government I think that has worked out very well. My ambition is not only to take the right foreign policy decisions now, but to equip the country with the Foreign Office it needs for the next couple of decades. So that will take a bit of time, yes."