A black Monday for Tories

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The Independent Online
Criticism of the substance and style of William Hague's leadership of the Conservative Party is building up a head of steam in advance of next month's party conference in Blackpool.

Hugh Dykes, a former Conservative MP, yesterday announced that he was switching to the Liberal Democrats because of the Tories' steady drift away from One Nation policies.

But criticism of the leadership had gone way beyond the moderate wing of the party, who will continue to splinter off to the Liberal Democrats and Labour.

Former ministers and backbench critics are also sniping at Mr Hague's style and tactics - a campaign that will be bolstered by an embarrassing royal rebuke, delivered yesterday.

After the Conservative leader used an interview on BBC television's Breakfast with Frost to condemn the "shabby" way in which Tony Blair exploited the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, a senior royal source went out of his way to pay tribute the No 10's "very positive" contribution.

Mr Hague accused No 10 of leaking confidential advice, to put the Government in a good light and the Royal Family in a bad light. "Now that's shabby politics," he said. A Government source said that Mr Hague was telling a "pack of lies", and although the royal source wanted to avoid becoming embroiled in a political row, he sided with Downing Street's version of events. One astute political operator, with a proven track record, said last night: "[Mr] Hague's problem is that he has no strategy." There is also growing criticism, among MPs and constituency associations, of the way in which Mr Hague is "consulting" the party about proposed modernisation, which he is linking with a call to endorse his leadership.

One prominent Conservative MP said it was absurd to ask the party to vote on the leadership, when there was only one candidate being offered. "I thought the Soviet Union was dead and buried," he said.

There is a lingering, but pervasive, view among MPs that Mr Hague is very much on probation, as a "stop-gap" leader. It is felt that once Chris Patten and Michael Portillo get back into the Commons, the party will want to reopen the leadership question with a proper, heavyweight contest, and rules that open it up to a vote by rank-and-file party members. A significant number of MPs are determined that should happen before the next election.

Replying to his critics, Mr Hague told Breakfast with Frost: "We had a heavy defeat and we've got to recognise that.

"We've got to change some things in our party, so I'm setting about changing the organisation to make sure the Tory party is a more united force, more cohesive force, is more democratic, involves more people, and that people feel involved in it, so that we have a disciplinary committee to protect the integrity of the party where there is gross misconduct, so that we're open about the sources of our funding."

As part of his process of consultation, Mr Hague had undertaken a meet- the-people, travelling 5,000 miles across Britain, with the aim of meeting about 10,000 people. Today, he visits a London railway station; tomorrow, he is in the Midlands. On Wednesday, he visits Wales on the eve of its devolution referendum, and on Thursday he goes to the North-east.

But the new leader's effort will be wasted on Mr Dykes, a member of the party for 37 years and Conservative MP for Harrow East for 27 years. He lost the seat to Labour in May, and although he applied unsuccessfully for selection as the Tory candidate in July's Uxbridge by-election, he describes his switch as "the sad conclusion of a long period of soul-searching".

In an article for today's Independent, Mr Dykes says: "I have always been a One Nation Conservative, believing in social justice, committed to the European ideal, and a supporter of the sensible modernisation of our political system."

He then echoes the judgement of Enoch Powell, in 1974, saying: "On all these issues, I have not so much left the Conservative Party - the Conservative Party has left me." Mr Dykes also suggests that some Conservative MPs, and some who lost their seats, "sick at heart as I am, are still agonising."

Paddy Ashdown told The Independent: "Once firmly in the Conservative mainstream, people like Hugh Dykes feel increasingly uncomfortable in a party which has shifted so decisively to the right.

Hague attack backfires, page 6

Hugh Dykes, page 15