Sir Archie Hamilton, a former defence minister and parliamentary private secretary to Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister, was narrowly elected to lead the 1922 Committee on a second ballot - beating former cabinet minister John MacGregor.
The chairman of the 1922 holds a pivotal constitutional role in the process of electing the new leader, and although Sir Archie will today consult party colleagues, he is expected to restrict the franchise to the existing electorate - the MPs - when the election to replace Mr Major takes place next month.
Mr MacGregor was regarded as the more conciliatory challenger for the post, and Sir Archie's victory will lead to trouble with the broader party, and those calling for reform, if he gets his way on the leadership election process.
While the immediate reaction to Sir Archie's win was gloom among some moderates - one MP described the result as "a nail in the heart of Ken Clarke's chances" - others continued to hold out hope.
One source pointed to the "balancing" election of two pro-Europeans, John Butterfill and Geoffrey Johnson-Smith, as vice-chairmen of the 1922 Committee.
But a speech made by Mr Hague last night dismayed some MPs, because of its direct criticism of Mr Major.
Mr Hague, widely regarded as a favourite for the succession, said the last government - of which he was a member - had been tarnished by the perceived sleaze, greed, self-indulgence and division of society, and if the party was now to unite, it needed a clear lead, rather than "fudge".
While trying to soften the blow by arguing that he was not criticising any individual, he said: "One of the lessons of the past few years is that it is easier to unite the party behind a clear position than a constantly shifting fudge."
Mr Hague told a meeting of Conservative activists that he wanted to be the leadership choice of "the whole party", and that he wanted "to rebuild the Conservative Party to be the driving force in British politics and in world politics at every level once more."
Retracing the causes of this month's "humiliating rout", he said that while Labour had been bequeathed the best economy since the First World War, and Britain had been changed for the better after 18 years of Conservative government, the Tories had failed.
"We were voted out of office because we lost the faith, the confidence, the goodwill of the electorate," he said. "Because we failed to communicate with people and to show we understood their concerns.Reuse content