Hague blamed for Tory selection disarray as Norris steps back into the race for mayor

WILLIAM HAGUE'S leadership came under renewed fire last night when senior Tories attacked the disarray over the party's selection of its candidate for mayor of London. MPs blamed Mr Hague for the chaos as Steven Norris was restored to the Conservative shortlist less than 72 hours after he was excluded.

Mr Norris emerged triumphant when Michael Ancram, the Tory chairman, announced that the board of the party would let him back into the race.

The decision means the flamboyant former transport minister will be one of six hopefuls allowed to appear tonight before 1,500 London members at a hustings meeting. Mr Hague admitted the past three days had been difficult for the party, but contrasted Conservative democracy with "Labour's dictatorial control".

However, even Tory MPs normally loyal to their leader admitted the disarray had raised serious questions about his judgement and prompted renewed speculation at Westminster about a move to oust him before the general election.

Privately, Hague allies conceded his "hands-off" approach to the selection process had backfired. Mr Hague had maintained the choice of candidate was a matter for London party members, but he is now being blamed for the confusion and for not blocking Lord Archer's bid much earlier.

One Tory frontbencher said: "He has been asking people to believe, `It's nothing to do with me, I am only the party leader.' It just doesn't wash." A delighted Mr Norris said he was relieved the decision would now rest in the hands of the party's 40,000 members in the capital.

Asked if he expected any more revelations about his love life to come out, he said: "I am not completely insane and I would have to be if I was going to go into an election like this knowing there was some skeleton lurking in my cupboard."

He insisted he could still beat Labour's candidate, whether it was Ken Livingstone or Frank Dobson. Mr Livingstone's own party leader had described him as a danger to London, while Mr Dobson didn't want the job, he said.

Mr Norris will join Andrew Boff, Baroness Hanham, Baroness Miller, Mark Kotecha and Paul Lynch at the hustings meeting to select two candidates to go forward to a postal ballot. Ballot papers will go out to party members in London on Thursday 23 December, and the winner will be announced on 17 January.

Tory MPs fear that the chaos over the London mayor, and a renewed burst of publicity over Michael Ashcroft, the party treasurer, has stopped in its tracks a fightback against Labour. Party strategists believed Mr Hague had reached a turning point last month, when an ICM poll showed Labour's lead over the party had fallen to 10 points. But after a month of bad publicity it has now risen to 19 points.

"It's a hammer blow," one member of the Shadow Cabinet said. "If things don't improve by the new year, the MPs will get very restless and we shall have another crisis of confidence in the leadership."

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