There's a right time and a wrong time to go - William Hague chose the right time.

I'm convinced that it's true. When Mr Hague was elected leader of the Conservative Party, he was the best man for the job. Michael Portillo had lost his seat, Ken Clarke may have had more experience, but he was unacceptable to the party as a whole, as Michael Heseltine would have been, had he been in the frame. So Mr Hague was duly elected and, from the start, fought his corner well. He was an excellent orator in the Commons, one of the best since Winston Churchill, and he often had Tony Blair on the run.

But when it came to it, the Conservatives had a disastrous election, the electorate failed to take to him or his party and, as leader, he had to accept the responsibility.

He did this with great decorum; he was decisive, he was brave and he did the right thing in resigning.

What I think the country failed to appreciate was Mr Hague's tender age. He is now only 40, and I don't know many 36-year-olds who would have been prepared to take over a party so firmly in the doldrums. He accepted the mantle and he showed great strength of character when the party was at its lowest ebb for years.

A great deal is being said about the candidates vying to replace him. What concerned me straight away was the tone of one party stalwart. Lord Tebbit said that the party should be led by someone who was a "normal family man", a pointed reference to Mr Portillo having no children. He is the only one to bring this up and I think he is out of order. Who is Lord Tebbit to tell people what is normal in this day and age?

There is also a great deal of talk about charisma. Mr Portillo is regarded as having plenty of it but I look at him and don't see much at all. Charisma is in the eye of the beholder. The Conservatives are looking for someone who can lead the party and appeal to the public and, in my view, these are two separate issues. It needs someone who can get the message across to the public in a way they can understand. That is more important than charisma.

If Mr Hague chose the perfect time to go, Margaret Thatcher was guilty of hanging on to the leadership too long. If Ulster Unionist David Trimble goes through with his threat to resign on July 1, he will definitely be going too early. He is Northern Ireland's First Minister and when he took the job he must have known it was going to be a difficult one. When he made his pronouncement, I think he was guilty of playing to the cameras - but it didn't work. He simply looked like someone who was throwing his doll out of the pram and is now faced with an embarrassing climb-down. I understand that it must be a soul-destroying job and that it was in the aftermath of a poor election show, but the Northern Ireland peace process is bigger than one man. He should dig deep, motivate and influence, that's the job of a leader, if not for himself, then for the people of Northern Ireland.

How a leader reacts to pressure reveals his true worth. Mr Hague did the best job he could under extremely difficult circumstances and resigned honourably. I believe he will bounce back. He has managed to squeeze an enormous amount of experience into a relatively short career, and will be better for it. When he finally retires from politics, in many years to come, people will not judge him on his election failure, but on the successes that, undoubtedly, he will achieve.

Published: 21/06/2001