Hague acts to quell old guard revolt

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GILLIAN SHEPHARD yesterday demanded assurances from William Hague that she was not about to be sacked after rumours swept Westminster that the Tory leader was planning a "night of the long knives".

The Tory environment spokeswoman was furious at reports that she was on a list for a proposed purge of the party's old guard.

Last night, Mr Hague took the unusual step of issuing a statement to deny the reports in an effort to damp down the fire within the Shadow Cabinet.

Mr Hague's aides also made it clear that he will keep John Redwood and Michael Howard in his shadow team.

But the suspicions remain that Mr Hague's high command is pressing him to get rid of some of the older members of the Shadow Cabinet to promote the "Haguettes", the next generation of Tory MPs who survived the 1997 Labour landslide. They include Liam Fox, who yesterday spearheaded a nationwide Tory campaign against Labour's constitutional reforms.

The old guard's suspicions were raised last week by public opinion research for the Tories that showed that voters still reacted negatively to the frontbench team, associating it with the last Government and election failure.

Mrs Shephard and some of her senior colleagues suspected that some of those responsible for the research were also behind the stories that they faced being axed.

The Tory high command was last night searching for the source of the backstabbing and blamed lowly backbenchers. "angling for promotion".

Suspicions remain that the source of the discontent was a highly placed member of Mr Hague's team. However, the move would seem to have backfired by forcing the leadership to publicly support the old guard, making them almost unsackable when Mr Hague comes to reshuffle his team.