Ballot fiasco could leave Hague floundering

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The Independent Online
William Hague's "back me or sack me" ballot on his leadership of the Tory Party is heading for a shambles, with an even less convincing endorsement than the devolution referendum in Wales.

Top Conservative strategists admitted yesterday that they would be "hard pressed" to see as many as a quarter of the voting papers returned from an estimated 400,000 distributed to the constituencies.

The latest problem for Mr Hague's faltering leadership comes as former prime minister John Major joins Chris Patten, the ex-governor of Hong Kong - seen by some Tories as "the King across the water" - for a private holiday in Spain at the home of Tristan Garel-Jones, the former Foreign Office minister and the party's best-known plotter.

Mr Major has privately said he has no plans to give up his safe seat at Huntingdon to Mr Patten, so he could get back into Parliament and supplant Mr Hague. However, his denials and the Spanish rendezvous have set off speculation that moves are afoot to find a replacement leader if Mr Hague continues his gaffe-prone leadership style.

Party officials are bracing themselves for a low turn-out in what they call "the Albanian ballot" - because there is only one candidate and one policy - despite a whistle-stop tour of the country by the Conservative leader up to Thursday's voting deadline. Mr Hague could end up with as few as 60,000-70,000 activists backing him and his programme for change.

This would be a lower proportion of the available electorate than the "Yes" vote in the Welsh referendum last Thursday, which the Tory leader - and former Welsh secretary - said was not a proper mandate.

The Conservatives' unprecedented excursion into internal party democracy is already running into serious difficulties, with some constituency parties failing to pass on voting papers, while others have got more than they need. Party officials privately concede that the poll is "an imperfect exercise" but refuse to disclose how many voting slips have been sent out.

The result will not be announced until nearly two weeks later, on 7 October, the first day of the party conference in Blackpool, and reformers want to know why it is being delayed. "Can you imagine the hullaballoo there would have been if the devolution referendum results had been held back for a fortnight?" asked a Tory source.

Mr Hague is understood to have experienced further leadership problems, with his shadow Cabinet last week rejecting proposals for a disciplinary code for Tory MPs modelled on the lines of Labour's draconian special powers that now allow Tony Blair to suspend wayward MPs, or those suspected of bringing the party into disrepute.

Opposition front-benchers rallied to Alastair Goodlad, the shadow international development secretary, who warned that the Conservatives' rump army at Westminster was in no mood to be pushed around.