Confident Hague creates `A-team' of leading Tories

CONSERVATIVES
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The Independent Online
WILLIAM HAGUE created an "A-team" of senior Conservatives yesterday to spearhead the party's fightback against Labour in the run-up to the general election.

The Conservatives' leader completed his frontbench reshuffle by setting up an inner circle from the Shadow Cabinet. It will seek to capitalise on the party's victory in last week's Euro elections by narrowing Labour's lead in the opinion polls. One shadow cabinet member said last night that Mr Hague's gamble of fighting a hardline Eurosceptic campaign had boosted his own self- confidence and finally given him authority over the party. "We are all Hague-ites now," he said. "We are back in the game, and morale is high."

The top team announced by Mr Hague will comprise Francis Maude, the shadow Chancellor, Ann Widdecombe, shadow Home Secretary, John Maples, shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Ancram, Conservative party chairman, James Arbuthnot, Chief Whip, Andrew Lansley, policy review head, and Lord Strathclyde, Conservative leader in the Lords.

The group will focus on "strategy, policy development and political direction all the way up to the next election", a party spokesman said.

A noticeable absentee is John Redwood, who might have expected a place in the team because he shadows John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Hague's new line-up includes a key role for Tim Collins, who is promoted from the whips' office to Conservative Central Office as its senior vice- chairman. He will be the link between the new "inner cabinet" and the party's so-called "war room" of media operations and research.

Mr Collins, a former Conservative director of communications who entered Parliament in 1997, is being talked up by party sources as a "high flyer set to play an absolutely vital role". John Hayes, another of the 1997 intake and MP for South Holland and The Deepings, becomes a party vice- chairman. John Bercow, who represents Buckingham, becomes a spokesman on education and employment.

David Lidington, previously parliamentary private secretary to Mr Hague - his "eyes and ears" in the Commons corridors and tea-room - moves to a home affairs brief. He is succeded by John Whittingdale, who did the same job for Margaret Thatcher.

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