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A clean nose at the poisoned chalice

There wasn't a wet eye in the valleys when John Redwood resigned as Secretary of State for Wales. The Prime Minister's challenger appears to have made few friends in the principality he presided over for two years, writes Frances Rafferty.

"I deeply regret the way he climbed on the backs of the children of Wales to get a hook for promotion and a higher profile. His decisions were most bizarre and inconsistent and his methods were divisive," said David Winfield, secretary of the Welsh National Association of Head Teachers.

"With regard to the new young gentleman, I hope he'll spend time in Wales, visit our schools and apply himself to some of the social deprivation in the valleys," he added.

The new young gentleman in question is William Hague, at 34 the youngest Cabinet member since Harold Wilson, and the first who attended a comprehensive school. Like the Labour leader, he comes from Yorkshire and has been described as speaking like Mr Wilson, but thinking like Mrs Thatcher.

His political precocity - he started reading Hansard at 13 - was soon noticed by his teachers at Wath upon Dearne school. And he was brought to the attention of Robert Godber, the politics teacher.

"He had a very clear idea of his political views from an early age and was articulating Thatcherism at a time when it was not being articulated. It was no surprise to me when I learned he had reached the House of Commons," said Mr Godber.

Mr Hague now winces at the incident that first brought him fame and led to Mrs Thatcher describing him as "possibly another young Pitt". At the age of 16, resplendent in a deeply unfashionable tweed jacket, he made a spirited attack on the Party's Wets in a speech at Conservative conference.

But, according to his teachers, he remained modest, "with his feet on the ground". He politely gave a photo-call outside the school, but then told the photographers he had to go or else he would be late for economics.

Derek Kirby, his former headmaster, recalled the first day he came to the school with his mother. "I told him to keep his nose clean and he'd go far." He remembers William Hague as a popular boy, active in the debating and public speaking societies and a participant in Gilbert and Sullivan productions.

But where he picked up his political leanings is a mystery. His parents are Conservative voters, but not activists, and his home was in a Labour stronghold where mining and steel-producing were the main industries. This, he believes, should be useful for his tenure in the Labour stronghold of Wales.

How education will fit into the new unitary authorities will be the first major problem facing the new minister, David Winfield believes. "Very quickly he'll come up against the funding issues within a unitary authority. It's a poisoned chalice," he said.

But Mr Hague has already proved himself adroit with difficult briefs and must be hoping that he will break the trend of recent Welsh Secretaries and go on to greater things . . . remembering to keep his nose clean.

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