Hague knocks the Major inheritance

Mystery candidate could upset calculations in second ballot
Click to follow
The Independent Online
William Hague, the Conservative leadership contender, yesterday delivered another implicit attack on the inheritance being left by the former prime minister, John Major.

He told a meeting of Manchester party activists: "Two years from now, the words people associate with the Conservative Party must not be `sleaze' or `greed' or `division'.

"My ambition is that the words people associate with the Conservative Party two years from now are the words, `fresh', `clear', `open' and `united'. That is the kind of Conservative Party I want to build."

Mr Hague said last week that one of the lessons of the past few years - of Mr Major's leadership - was "that it is easier to unite the party behind a clear position than a constantly shifting fudge".

That was taken as a back-handed attack on Mr Major, something seen as unfortunate from inside and outside Mr Hague's campaign because every vote counts when there are only 164 MPs in the electorate for the new leader.

Nevertheless, Mr Hague appears ready to map out a distinctive and bold position in the contest which yesterday attracted the public endorsement of Michael Forsyth, the right-wing former secretary of state for Scotland, following Thursday's public backing by Michael Ancram, the rather more moderate former Northern Ireland minister. He also has the supprt of the MP for Dorset South, Ian Bruce.

The difference between Mr Ancram and Mr Forsyth is that Mr Ancram is still an MP and therefore has a vote - unlike the seven former Conservative MPs who yesterday wrote a letter of support for Kenneth Clarke to The Times.

While there are reports from reliable sources among Mr Clarke's supporters that he has the firm pledges of 48 MPs, other camps are dismissive of that claim, suggesting that Mr Clarke will be lucky to get more than 45 votes in the first round of the contest on 10 June. If that was the case, and the former chancellor got fewer than 50 votes, even his supporters accept that he would be "dead in the water", and he would not be able to recover ground in the second-round ballot on 17 June.

While Mr Clarke could expect the support of Stephen Dorrell, the former secretary of state for health, and his possible five supporters from the first round, it is unlikely that he would then pick up support from, say, those who had voted for Michael Howard or John Redwood in the first round.

Those votes would by that stage be seeking to move behind the eventual winner - either Mr Hague or Peter Lilley. Mr Lilley yesterday picked up the support of Sir Marcus Fox, the authoritative former chairman of the 1922 Committee. Although Sir Marcus cannot vote, Mr Lilley's campaign team pointed out that his views "still count among a lot MPs".

The final run-off could be between those two men, unless another contender emerged to stand in the second round of the contest, which would be allowed under the rules.

But no one can imagine who that mystery candidate could be, unless Michael Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister, was persuaded to enter the fray.

Certainly, Mr Clarke does not appear to be doing himself any good by the style of his campaign. While other candidates were out and about, or issuing speeches and texts, Mr Clarke's campaign office told The Independent yesterday: "He's not doing anything today, I'm afraid."

That might be adequate if the franchise was to be restricted to the parliamentary party, but it is now becoming clearer that by next year the party at large will have a significant stake in the election of the leader - possibly 50-50 with MPs - and that it will be pressing for a possible rerun of the current leadership election.

Mr Howard repeated yesterday that he would stand for re-election under any new leadership rules.