WE live in an age of poisonous cynicism about politicians - and no-one is more cynical than the political journalists who gathered to hear William Hague speak yesterday.

Yet the question repeatedly put to the retiring Richmond MP at Westminster yesterday was: “Why are you leaving us now, when so young?”

The great paradox of the 53-year-old Mr Hague’s career is that hardly anyone was listening when he led the Conservative Party to disaster at the 2001 general election.

And yet, after he quit, companies were suddenly willing to pay eye-popping fortunes to hear his witty and successful after-dinner speeches, helping to make him very rich indeed.

No-one paid more than the cost of their lunch yesterday, but there was a sense that we were there to see and hear one of parliament’s few genuine Big Beasts, before he walks out of the jungle.

Of course, many were there for the jokes – and there were some very funny ones, including about his one by-election victory in Richmond, way back in 1989.

But that was also a fascination that someone with such experience – as Foreign Secretary, as a key Tory player for so long – is about to be lost to politics, when he surely has so much still to give?

First, those jokes, some at the expense of the civil servants who advised him.

So a “strategic plan” meant “a piece of work that is just a bit longer than normal”, while “scaling up our response” was interpreted as….”we never expected this to happen”.

Mr Hague added: “And if someone says ‘there is a spread of opinion about your proposal’, that means ‘none of us think it is a good idea!’.

Pointing out that negative journalists could be found during that 1989 Richmond campaign, Mr Hague remembered how he announced that a 100-year-old lady had just joined the local Tory party.

One reporter immediately demanded to know: “Why has it taken you a century to win over this lady?”

Screaming Lord Sutch ran for the Monster Raving Loony Party, but started his campaign in the wrong Richmond, in Surrey. “And 300 of my constituents voted for him!”

Then there was Miss Whiplash, for the Corrective Party: “She came into my headquarters, crashed her whip down on the counter and demanded to see Little Willie.

“Little Willie was out canvasing at the time - which was a very good place to be!”

Did he have any regrets? It turned out that, 18 years’ on, Mr Hague believes he took on the Tory crown “a little rashly” and that he failed to project a “consistent message”.

He added: “And the second is that you have to be radical with your party at the beginning. I was a bit radical, but not radical enough.

“I wish in retrospect that, on the inclusion of more women in our ranks of candidates and people from ethnic minorities, we had gone further, faster.”

I asked the Rotherham-born Mr Hague if the top of the Conservative Party might be viewed as more dominated by the posh and privileged, once he has disappeared from it.

But he pointed to a “tremendous range of people, a greater variety of people” coming through the ranks than ever before – including his likely Richmond replacement, Rishi Sunak.

And he vowed: “None of them will face any barrier.

“Of course, people make the attack on Conservative leadership, but I – coming from a comprehensive school – have never felt excluded from anything in the senior councils of the Conservative Party.”

What of a Conservative revival in the North? Well, I think you will agree the key words in this reply are the two he repeated - over time.

Mr Hague said: “We have the most coherent message for the North of England that any party has presented in decades”

“The growth of employment in this country is being as much in the North elsewhere and over time – over time - that will be reflected in greater Conservative strength in the North.”

Once again, it was suggested to Mr Hague that he was getting out too young, when he is clearly better qualified to lead the Tory party than he was back in 1997?

He replied: “I think you have to roll the dice in life sometimes, you have to get on with things

“If you’re bursting to make a speech as a teenager, you have to do it. If you have the chance to be your party’s leader, it might never come around again.

“And I don’t think it’s necessary for politicians who have had a fulfilling political career to be a politician forever. So you will have to get used to writing about somebody else.”