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Gary Younge
'Little' Billy aims for more altitude

"That's how he comes across on the telly, doesn't he?" says Sally in Stafford town centre, who is thinking of voting Conservative. "A bit of a cheeky monkey. His baby face doesn't help much either, come to think of it."

"He's a squirt," said Simon in Monmouth, who, whatever else he does on June 7, will not be backing Mr Hague. "The sort of kid you'd beat up at school. A nerd."

A survey earlier this year revealed that voters were more likely to underestimate Mr Hague's actual height than any other party leader. Cartoonists like to depict him as a small child in short trousers or nappies; his image as a teenager addressing the party conference several decades ago is still etched on many memories.

It is not difficult to see the attraction in this image for his detractors. In Stafford "Little Billy's Bandwagon", complete with a clown and a womble, turned up to taunt him; in Norwich his arrival prompted the shriek: "Go home, you bald little man."

But the feeling persists among his own supporters too. Older ones talk about how well he's "grown into his job" as though he is growing into pair of long trousers. At 40, they still think of him as "a nice lad".

"I don't know why I thought he'd be smaller," says Doreen in Norwich, a Tory supporter. "It could be all the drinking he talks about doing. He's quite young, really. I suppose you get an image in your mind and then it's difficult to shift it."

This is Mr Hague's challenge over the next three weeks. It goes beyond the physical to the political. Standing before a huge poster declaring "Keep The Pound" he looks less than the sum of his slogans. Now he has to grow in the public perception. He needs to think big.

They have to imagine him at the top table with Jospin, Schröder, Putin and Bush; leading the country into battle in foreign parts or encapsulating the national mood after the death of a monarch. People have to imagine waking up on June 8 and seeing him wave from the steps of Downing Street. There are already many, although by no means enough, who say that is what they want to see. But polls suggest that when even they close their eyes they cannot picture it. In the public imagination, William Hague just keeps coming up short.

Adolescence

In that sense he is campaigning not for the leadership of the nation but the leadership of his party. No one on his campaign team seriously thinks he has a chance of winning the election. But if he can make a significant dent in the Labour majority and emerge from his political adolescence with an air of maturity he could keep his job.

These rather elastic goals add an air of relaxation to Mr Hague's campaign. Like Wycombe Wanderers in the FA cup, the Tories are not in it to win but to take their chances and show that they can give the favourites a run for their money. On the two occasions Mr Hague has led the Tories to the ballot box, at the local and European elections, they have outpolled Labour.

Mr Hague is good on the stump. After 20 minutes of misanthropy at the podium, lambasting asylum seekers or ex-convicts, he genuinely seems pleased to meet the public and chat to them. It's as though he hates humanity but quite likes people. He may keep stumbling over tax, be stuck in the low 30s in the polls, but so far, he and his team are still smiling.

All that is apart from two. Ffion, who has accompanied her husband everywhere, is clearly miserable. Someone has obviously told her to keep her mouth shut unless she is smiling.

Even the question, "How are you enjoying the campaign?" does not provoke a verbal response but a display of uneven teeth surrounded by muscles so strained you fear her face will crack, from a woman who looks as though she is on a day rate.

The other is Sebastian Coe who has been acting like the best man at a wedding where someone has spiked the punch.

One moment he looks like Nigel Havers with an all-year tan, leaking charm all over the party faithful; the next he is playing the night club bouncer, manhandling a Labour-supporting clown to keep him off the six o'clock news.

But while Mr Hague might look good on the road his party does not. Wherever you go you are met with the same demographic support base: ageing and white.

If you are under 40 or non-white, you'll be waved straight in to a meeting because those on the door know that you couldn't possibly be a local activist and so must have been flown in from central office or be a journalist.

Deafening silence

To be fair, since the events take place in the day they are more likely to attract retired people. But drawing from and performing to such a narrow pool of activists - the average age of a Tory party member is over 60 - will have an effect on your agenda. This is why Mr Hague leaves his party meetings with ears ringing with applause, to the deafening silence of the outside world.

His party is woefully out of touch. Dorothy Attenborough, a retired party supporter in Norwich, says the main issues are crime, health and asylum seekers.

"I don't like coming home from parish council meetings late," she says. "So I leave at 10.30." Has she ever been a victim of crime? "No, but you read about it," she says. Does she know any asylum seekers? "No, but I know Labour are letting too many in and they do very well from our taxes when they get here," she says.

For many, four years is too soon to forget or forgive what the Tories managed to accomplish over 18 years. When Mr Hague stands in Monmouth town square and berates the government for presiding over the collapse of manufacturing, and drowning teachers and doctors under paperwork, they presume he must be talking about the last Tory government. "He's got a cheek coming to Wales and talking about education, health and jobs after all his lot did," said one passerby.

At first sight, his campaign strategy is also bewildering. He kicked off his first day in Norwich, which has two Labour seats, the most promising of which is 141st on the list of Tory marginals, but bypassed the rest of Norfolk where several other seats might be closer. The aim is to hit as many places for short periods of time with the hope that the Tories will maximise coverage on local TV and newspapers.

This means a lot of travelling far and campaigning fast - often two hours on the road for 20 minutes on the ground. While this might earn the party good media, it baffles those who turn up to see him. To the average onlooker in Stafford town centre, what was billed as a walkabout looked like a fight between some people carrying placards and others clutching cameras and notebooks.

It was an indication of how a campaign which may have impressed the pundits has yet to make any difference to the pub lic. As Mr Hague was leaving Stafford one woman turned and asked whether there was anyone of importance in the middle of the scrum.

"William Hague," I said.

"Oh," she said. "So, not really then."

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