Hague faces leadership crisis as six more peers join rebellion

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM HAGUE'S leadership of the Conservative Party was in crisis last night after a rebellion by Tory peers over his decision to sack Lord Cranborne as their leader.

Four Tory frontbench spokesmen resigned yesterday in protest at Lord Cranborne's dismissal, and two backbenchers defected to join the independent crossbenchers. Mr Hague's allies admitted that more resignations were possible.

Another day of dramatic developments at Westminster left even some MPs loyal to Mr Hague admitting that his credibility had been badly dented by his rejection of a compromise plan for Lords reform.

The scheme, drawn up by crossbench peers and endorsed by Lord Cranborne and Tony Blair, would reprieve 91 hereditaries until the Government introduced wider reform of the second chamber.

Despite Mr Hague's initial hostility to the agreement, it is expected to go ahead next year as part of the Bill to remove the right of the other 650 hereditaries to sit and vote in the Lords.

Although Mr Hague vowed to maintain the Tories' opposition to the measure, last night ministers said he looked impotent because of the widespread support among his own peers for the compromise.

Senior Tories were trying to bridge the growing divide between the party in the Commons and Lords, which some described as historic.

Mr Hague's hopes of containing the rebellion were dashed when Lord Fraser of Carmyllie resigned as deputy Tory leader in the Lords, saying he felt "disgusted and appalled" at the dismissal of Lord Cranborne. "I'm just bewildered by what happened and I just don't understand the basis on which Robert Cranborne was sacked," he said.

Then three other frontbenchers joined the rebellion: Lord Bowness, the environment spokesman; Lord Pilkington of Oxenford, who spoke on education; and the Earl of Home, a trade and industry spokesman and son of the former Tory prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Lord Pilkington criticised Mr Hague's climbdown, in the face of the revolt by his peers, to accept the main elements of the compromise plan.

Despite sacking Lord Cranborne for negotiating the deal, he had now accepted it in the cold light of day. Lord Pilkington urged other frontbenchers to "examine their consciences".

"The Lords are leaping every hour," one minister said. A Tory MP admitted: "To lose one peer is unfortunate, but to lose five is a disaster."

The rebellion caused such turmoil that the Tories said Mr Hague's new team in the Lords could not be named until next week. Despite an appeal for loyalty by Lord Strathclyde, the successor to Lord Cranborne as leader, both Baroness Strange and Baroness Flather resigned from the Tory party and joined the ranks of the crossbenchers in protest.

Asked if she would consider rejoining the Tories if Mr Hague resigned, Lady Strange replied: "I should think about it."

Lady Strange, a hereditary peer, said: "I believe if you are a leader of a party you must support all those you are responsible for. If you are not prepared to do that you are not the person to lead."

Baroness Flather, the first Tory Asian peer, said: "I think this should have been handled differently. It is not the way to treat a senior colleague. It implies he has done something heinous."

In the face of the revolt Mr Hague wrote to the Prime Minister warning him the Tories would reject his attempt at "horse-trading", with the clear threat to carry on the "trench warfare" in the Lords. But the threat was dismissed with contempt by ministers last night. One said: "He can bluster, but he no longer has the troops."

Mr Blair will seek to increase Mr Hague's isolation in his own party by speeding "stage two" of the Government's Lords reforms. A Royal Commission to draw up proposals, to be set up early in the new year, will be asked to report in 12 months instead of the two years originally envisaged.

Ministers say this could allow full-scale reform, turning the Lords into a partly elected second chamber, to be approved before the next general election. It would also increase the prospects of an early referendum on proportional representation for House of Commons elections.

Ministers piled the pressure on Mr Hague by announcing the likelihood of avoiding "guerrilla war" in the Lords over the hereditaries meant they will bring forward two key measures dropped from last week's Queen's Speech - setting up a Food Standards Agency and a Strategic Rail Authority to improve the performance of the privatised train companies.

Lord Strathclyde told peers that the Tories had suffered blows in the past 24 hours, but added: "When we have retired briefly to lick our wounds we shall return, hydra-like, to be as effective and thorough in opposition as we always have been."

In his letter, Mr Hague accused Mr Blair of a "staggering U-turn". He wrote: "By putting forward a proposal to keep hereditary peers, you have completely abandoned the one principle that you said motivated your reform - namely, that hereditary peers were ... 'a democratic monstrosity'."

But Alan Clark, Tory MP for Kensington and Chelsea, criticised Mr Hague, saying he had put the party into "a sort of double-sided mess". He added: "The implications are horrendous because it means the Conservative Party is reducing itself to a kind of minority. This is shutting itself off from its ancient traditions."


Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

Confirms he has resigned as Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Lords


Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

Spokesman on education and employment says he has resigned


Lord Bowness

Spokesman on environment, transport and regions confirms he has resigned


Earl of Home

Spokesman on trade and industry confirms he has resigned


Baroness Strange

Announces she has resigned and joined the independent peers


Baroness Flather

First female Tory Asian peer announced resignation in protest at 'brutal' sacking