Conservatives In Crisis: Five days that shook the Tories and led to renewed questions over Hague's leadership

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A WEEK AGO, William Hague believed the Tories had reached a turning point in their long march back from the political wilderness. He had scored a Commons triumph over Tony Blair in the debate on the Queen's Speech, in a witty and cutting attack on the Government's policies.

When Mr Hague and his team held their daily strategy meeting at Conservative Central Office at 9am last Thursday - in what they call the "Custard Room" after the colour of the walls - they opened by discussing a set of bad newspaper headlines for the Government, and praise for what was seen as Mr Hague's best performance since becoming Tory leader.

"The Queen's Speech should be an opportunity for the Government - but we managed to seize the initiative against the odds," said a member of Mr Hague's inner circle.

The other headlines concentrated on Labour's turmoil over Ken Livingstone's attempt to become the party's candidate for mayor of London. Was the tide turning?

There was more for the Tories to cheer from a barely reported opinion poll by ICM, which showed the Opposition had narrowed Labour's opinion poll lead from 20 points to 10 since May. This confirmed the Tories' own private polling, which showed the shine was finally coming off Mr Blair and his Government.

Mr Hague's new-found optimism was interrupted on Thursday night when journalists rang for his reaction to the surprise news that Cherie Blair was pregnant. But this was a minor ripple - in terms of the wave of warmth extended to the Blairs - compared with the blow that was to befall Mr Hague on Friday night, when Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare telephoned him to warn that the News of the World was about to break damaging revelations about his chequered past.

The Tory leader knew instantly that he would have to dump the maverick millionaire novelist as the party's candidate for mayor of London - a course that Lord Archer was initially reluctant to accept. But he also knew that it would amount only to a damage- limitation exercise and that this was a serious body blow, just when there were real grounds for optimism.

Despite a last-minute attempt to ride out the storm, Lord Archer bowed to the inevitable on Saturday, when Mr Hague made clear that he would push him out as mayoral candidate if he refused to jump first.

Mr Hague spent a miserable weekend. It should have been one during which he and his wife, Ffion, celebrated her new job as a head-hunter. Instead he was constantly distracted by the Archer affair.

An uncomfortable-looking Michael Ancram, the Tory party chairman, held the fort on Sunday, appearing before the hordes of television cameras parked outside Central Office.

When Mr Hague and his team gathered in the Custard Room on Monday, the atmosphere could hardly have been more different to their meeting four days earlier. This time, the headlines were about the crisis engulfing the Conservatives and Scotland Yard's confirmation that it was investigating the allegations against Lord Archer.

Mr Hague knew he had to go on the offensive at what became a crisis meeting with his closest colleagues, aimed at rescuing his image as a strong leader. He instructed the Conservative Chief Whip in the Lords, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, to withdraw the whip from Lord Archer, ensuring that this development led the lunchtime and evening news bulletins. Later in the morning, Mr Hague decided to refer the affair to the party's ethics and integrity committee, creating the first case to be heard by the much maligned panel.

The committee had been set up soon after Mr Hague became leader in 1997, as a crucial part of his drive to modernise his party and bury the image of "Tory sleaze" that so bedevilled the Major government.

One of Mr Hague's "six principles" as incoming Tory leader was to declare: "Our current disciplinary methods are outdated. New powers are needed to deal with individuals who bring the party's name into disrepute."

Mr Hague boasted at the time: "I have set up a very powerful committee - an ethics and integrity committee - that's part of the party reforms because I am determined that never again will the name of the Conservative Party be blackened by one candidate being guilty of some gross misconduct."

In politics, as in other walks of life, it is easy to be wise after the event. But as Conservative MPs reflected ruefully on the fallout from the Archer affair in the Commons tearooms yesterday, their discussion returned to the same questions: why did Mr Hague allow Lord Archer to become the Tory candidate in the first place? Why were the warnings that Lord Archer was "an accident waiting to happen" ignored? Why did Sir Timothy Kitson, a former Tory whip, receive short shrift when he asked Mr Hague to use his powers to refer the Archer case to the ethics committee? Why did Michael Crick, the respected investigative journalist and a former friend of Mr Hague at Oxford University, receive such a curt reply when he offered to brief the Conservative leader on his evidence that Lord Archer was an unfit candidate to run for mayor?

Some Tory MPs warned privately that there would be growing pressure for Mr Hague to "clear the air" by referring Michael Ashcroft, the party's treasurer, to the ethics committee, following newspaper allegations about his activities. Such demands will grow after today's disclosures in The Independent that money channelled through his Belize Bank Trust may have breached another of Mr Hague's six principles - to end foreign donations.

"It is no longer a question of Archer's antics; it is a question of William Hague's judgement," one senior Tory MP said last night.

A Conservative frontbencher said: "It was a terrible mistake to set up the ethics committee in the first place. Now it just looks farcical. You cannot set up a new body like that if you are not prepared to follow it through."

Mr Hague has already proved remarkably calm in various storms that have engulfed him since 1997. Even when those around him panic, he keeps his head and steadies their nerves. He will have plenty of opportunity to repeat this act in the coming days and weeks.

FRIDAY

THE BLAIR BABY

Cherie Blair appears in public for the first time after the news had broken that she was expecting another child. The Prime Minister and his family bask in public congratulations

SATURDAY

ARCHER PULLS OUT

Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare pulls out as the Tory candidate to be London mayor after the News of the World reveals they are to publish a damaging story

SUNDAY

ANCRAM AT BAY

An uncomfortable-looking Tory chairman performs a damage-limitation exercise at Conservative Central Office as the Archer affair threatens to consume the party

MONDAY

SCOTLAND YARD STEP IN

The police confirmed they were investigating Lord Archer over the revelation that he had asked a friend to lie during his successful libel action against the Daily Star 13 years ago

YESTERDAY

ASHCROFT ALLEGATIONS

Allegations that the Tory Party had broken Hague's pledge to ban foreign donations, receiving pounds 666,500 in recent months from the arm of a Belize- based bank owned by Michael Ashcroft

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