Hague claims `coup' at No 10

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THE TORIES claimed the first defection in the looming general election battle last night when a Downing Street press officer joined William Hague's "war room" at Conservative Party headquarters.

Bill Clare, a Foreign Office civil servant who was seconded to No 10 five months ago, will handle health issues at Conservative Central Office and run the office of Liam Fox, the Tory health spokesman. A "delighted" Mr Hague seized on the transfer as a "coup" last night. "Tony Blair would like to believe that he is having his own way. Bill's decision to join the war room is the latest proof that the tide is turning," he said.

Mr Clare, 40, said he had decided to leave the Foreign Office after 18 enjoyable years to "try my hand at something else" after being approached by the Tories. He said he had got on well with Mr Blair, with whom he worked on the Kosovo crisis and on a regional tour, and his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, who wished him well.

Mr Clare said he had always been a Conservative, but had not been allowed to advance them as a civil servant. He served as private secretary to Mr Fox when he was a Foreign Office minister before the 1997 election.

His former Downing Street colleagues played down Mr Clare's move, saying the "spin" put on it by the Tories showed that "truth was the first casualty of war".

A No 10 insider said Mr Clare had never been a permanent member of staff; nor had he acted as a personal press officer to Mr Blair.

"We liked him. We didn't know his political views because we run a non- political press office. He is just a civil servant who has decided to do something else," he said.