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How much of a Euro-sceptic is William Hague?

Hague600 Party members love William Hague.  That, at least, is the message they send in our regular poll of Shadow Cabinet ratings.  The Foreign Secretary usually commands the top of the table and nearly always makes the first three.  His popularity's only taken a serious hit once - when the Party dropped its Lisbon referendum pledge.

This is partly because Hague, as Cecil Parkinson once said, "is one of us" - a Party member since his teens, a cultural conservative (that Notting Hill baseball cap was an aberration), a man to whom a debt's owed for taking on Tony Blair (and, some add, Michael Portillo), and a mordant joke-maker with flawless comic timing.

There's not enough space, alas, to list examples in detail - including a politically-incorrect, slightly dated and coalition-unfriendly joke about a desert island, two Liberal Democrat MPs, a beautiful girl, and a pistol - but if you doubt the point go to column 1261 of this Hansard extract.

It follows that Hague's often viewed as a committed Euro-sceptic - the man who warned during the 2001 election that we'd only 12 days to save the pound.  It's true that his stalwart opposition to the Euro helped to keep Britain out of it.  But some Euro-sceptics in the Parliamentary Party and elsewhere are sceptical about whether he really is one.

Rightly or wrongly, they claim that his heart wasn't in leaving the EPP, a Lisbon referendum or the repatriation of powers proposals put in our manifesto but dropped from the Coalition Agreement.  I don't know how one can prove that someone's heart isn't in something, but suspect that they'll be pointing to the Foreign Secretary's speech today for further evidence.

Hague will say that a "generation gap" exists in terms of British diplomatic representation in Brussels.  He'll add: "It is mystifying to us that the previous government failed to give due weight to the exercise of British influence in the EU.  They neglected to ensure that sufficient numbers of bright British officials entered EU institutions…as a new government, we are determined to put this right."

He'll also stress building stronger relations with growing powers, such as China, India and Brazil, and refer to the yoking-together of foreign and domestic policy in the new National Security Council.  The speech confirms Hague's determination to restore the standing and morale of the Foreign Office within Whitehall after the decline of both under Blair: the Iraq War, prosecuted against the Department's institutional bias, dealt a wounding blow to its self-esteem.

The Foreign Secretary's right to stress re-balancing our foreign policy.  Visiting India drummed home to me how important our mutual relationship is (though no less vital, in a different way, than our links with Pakistan).  A proper National Security Council was overdue: the Islamist security threat's both here and abroad.  Hague's got the political weight to ensure that the Foreign Office recovers the place it had under previous Conservative governments.

But I'm sceptical - the right word in this context, as so often in others - about his EU diplomacy scheme.  Some will claim that the more officials we have in Brussels, the better our interests will be guarded.  A careful read of Hugo Young's "This Blessed Plot" - his pro-EU history of Britain's engagement with the project - suggests otherwise.  In it, he lauds the "conspiracy of like-minded men" who saw it as their civil service duty to draw the politicians into economic and, eventually, political union.

Read Young on John Robinson, who "stayed behind in Brussels for four years" after the MacMillan Government's failed bid to join the EEC.  Or on Michael Palliser.  Or on Michael Butler.  "The young men who had despaired of their superiors' hidebound disdain for the Schuman Plan and the Messina project were rising up the hierarchy," Young writes.

Hague's scheme risks bolstering the Foreign Office's institutional bias.  Some will say that the exigencies of Coalition explain the Foreign Secretary's move.  Others will maintain that it proves what they've been saying about him all along.  "Let me take you on a journey to a foreign land", he once said.  Then it was a warning to the British people.  Now it's an invitation to our civil servants.

Paul Goodman


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