Leader: The melancholy and turmoil of the talented Mr Hague

Hague should ask himself whether his undoubted talents could be better used elsewhere in government

William Hague seems destined to be the right man at the wrong time. A precocious teenager, he won the Conservative leadership too early and led his party to its second successive landslide defeat in 2001, against Tony Blair's popular first-term Labour government. After this, he retreated from frontline politics, remaking himself as a writer (publishing an excellent biography of William Pitt the Younger), highly paid raconteur, consultant and tabloid newspaper columnist. During these years of self-imposed exile many Conservatives mourned his absence; they admired his eloquence and robust Euroscepticism, and yearned for him to return, even perhaps as leader.

Now, as Foreign Secretary, Mr Hague once again seems to be the right man at the wrong time. A series of embarrassing blunders during the Libyan crisis, capped by the botched SAS mission in Benghazi, mean that his position is increasingly uncertain. There are mutterings to the effect that since the events of last summer, when he was forced to assert his heterosexuality in response to rumours of a gay affair with his then special adviser, as well as to speak publicly about his wife's multiple miscarriages, he has seemed disengaged from politics, melancholy and preoccupied.
When, in response to a question about his future, he wearily replied on 9 March that he was committed to doing his job for an "extended period of time", he looked and sounded as if he was already tired of ministerial life.

Yet when he entered the Foreign Office 10 months ago, Mr Hague was expected to become one of the successes of the government. After the military adventurism of the New Labour era, the promise of a more modest and cautious approach to foreign affairs was welcomed.
His arrival at King Charles Street marked a reversion to the tradition of Conservative realism, a doctrine rooted in a pessimistic view of human nature and one wary of foreign entanglements.

His declaration that "idealism in foreign policy always needs to be tempered by realism" was a rebuke to Tony Blair's messianic liberal interventionism. While the coalition government's health and education reforms were distinguished by their radicalism, its foreign policy was resolutely low-key and pragmatic.

This was before the Arab revolts in North Africa and the Middle East. The coalition has struggled to articulate a convincing approach ever since. Now, to the charge of incoherence has been added that of incompetence. In addition to Mr Hague's bungling of the evacuation of Britons from Libya, there was his ludicrous claim that Colonel Gaddafi was "on his way" to Venezuela.

Then, appearing in the Commons on 8 March, the Foreign Secretary failed dismally to explain the bizarre decision to send a helicopter-born SAS team into eastern Libya under the cover of darkness. He was ridiculed by the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, who quipped: "If some new neighbours moved into the Foreign Secretary's street, [would he] introduce himself by ringing the doorbell, or instead choose to climb over the fence in the middle of the night?"

However, what is a crisis for Mr Hague is an opportunity for the neoconservatives in the cabinet. Michael Gove, the coalition's most ardent interventionist, is already being touted by some as his natural successor. Mr Gove may yet find an ally in the Prime Minister. As Professor Brendan Simms writes in his essay on Conservative foreign policy on page 32, "Mr Cameron's recent Libya speech was much closer to George W Bush's agenda of democracy promotion than the narrow 'national interest' focus of Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind."

The PM would be deeply reluctant to lose Mr Hague. Northern, state-educated, experienced in government and popular with the Tory grass roots, he remains an asset. But his position as Foreign Secretary appears increasingly untenable. As he reflects on the accumulated errors of the past week, Mr Hague should ask himself whether his undoubted talents could be better used elsewhere in government.

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?