Britain Votes: `Incoherent' Hague awaits his fate

Local Elections
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WILLIAM HAGUE'S performance came under fire from one of his closest allies, with his position as Conservative leader described as being "on a knife edge" as he awaited the results of yesterday's local authority elections.

An anxious Mr Hague knew the results of the town hall elections in Scotland, Wales and most parts of England outside London, could seal his fate as Tory leader.

Party turmoil over the leadership's rejection of a Thatcherite, free- market approach to public services deepened when Alan Duncan, a frontbench health spokesman and close ally of Mr Hague, attacked the party leader's strategy as "incoherent". In an interview published in today's edition of New Statesman magazine, Mr Duncan said: "We've got to go back to the drawing board and no longer just scrabble around in the hope of winning short-term engagements and battles."

Mr Duncan said the public services U-turn, announced by the Conservatives' deputy leader Peter Lilley, "became a confusion of tactics, strategy and belief, none of which appeared to be coherent ... You can't build a strategy on unclear thinking: that's the cart before the horse."

Challenging Mr Hague's attempt to apologise for the Tories' past mistakes, Mr Duncan said: "We've got to go away and do a lot of thinking, not in a climate of apology and contrition, but in a climate of some satisfaction that everything we said turned out to be true."

Despite Mr Lilley's renunciation of free-market solutions to health and education, Mr Duncan said he and Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Health Secretary, would press ahead with their plans to enhance the role of the private sector in health care. He suggested that it should take over "a lot of non-urgent operations", for which people would have to wait two or three years on the National Health Service.

Tory officials were hoping that the controversy over Mr Lilley's U-turn would not inflict too much damage on the party's performance in yesterday's crucial elections.

"The message on the doorsteps is better than at the 1997 general election," a senior Tory source said. "Our problem is that some of our activists have been reluctant to knock on doors because they are fed up."

If the picture is bleak for Mr Hague when all the town hall results are known today, Tory MPs will not seek to oust him by calling a vote of confidence until after the European Parliament elections on 10 June.

The Tories have gained hundreds of seats largely because they recorded their worst-ever electoral performance in 1995, when most of the 13,000 seats up for grabs yesterday were last contested.

Tory officials have deliberately played down the party's prospects, claiming that recent opinion polls would point to only 500 gains. But Tory MPs said Mr Hague would have to make at least 1,000 gains if he were to keep his job. Gaining 1,200 seats would be seen as a sign of progress, while winning the 1,400 extra predicted by academics would delight MPs.

Tony Blair and his allies will also be poring over the council results today, as they will provide an important clue to whether Mr Blair's popularity in Middle England is on the wane. Unusually, the pressure to perform well has been on the Opposition rather than the governing party, which normally suffers a bout of "mid-term blues" as the voters turn against it. Yesterday, even Mr Hague's aides admitted the Tory leader has much more to lose than Mr Blair.