Hague moves to quell turmoil

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WILLIAM HAGUE attempted to reassert his authority over the Tory party yesterday with a warning that he would use a summer reshuffle of the Shadow Cabinet to sack his critics.

As more senior Conservatives attacked his apparent attempts to water down the party's commitment to Thatcherism, Mr Hague said he would not hesitate to axe opponents. But his move to batten down the hatches was undermined by a poll indicating that the Conservatives would win more support if Kenneth Clarke led them. With three days to go to local and regional elections, a Mail on Sunday MORI poll found the Tories on 30 per cent, compared with Labour's 50 per cent. Tory support would rise by five points if Mr Clarke was leader.

A Tory MEP suggested Mr Hague's blunders had handed a "loaded revolver" to those who wanted to stage a leadership challenge in summer.

Mr Hague's warning comes after two weeks of turmoil over the leadership's decision to rule out for ever the idea of privatising health and education.

Many backbench MPs and some in the Shadow Cabinet were appalled that Mr Hague and his deputy, Peter Lilley, announced such a major policy shift in the middle of an election campaign. Yet Mr Hague, who fired a senior party official for leaking an early draft of a speech on the issue by Mr Lilley, said it would be "surprising" if the reshuffle did not "bring new people along".

"I'm not a soft touch. I expect people to do their jobs and deliver and I owe it to the party to change that if they don't," he said in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph. "I've already had a big reshuffle and I have changed my senior staff. I will do it again if necessary."

But several senior party figures attacked the timing of the announcement and condemned the Central Office spin-doctors who originally stirred up media interest by claiming Mr Lilley's speech was the equivalent of Labour dumping Clause IV.

The Tory Euro-MP Graham Mather said many Tories were "absolutely flabbergasted" by Mr Lilley's speech and declared it was now "open season" on the leadership. "It is as if the leadership has presented a loaded revolver on a silver tray to its opponents and invited them to take pot shots at it. It really is handing people who may have been dissatisfied a weapon they are bound to use," he told the BBC's On the Record.

Lord Tebbit, former Tory chairman, said Mr Hague had yet to convince voters that he was "a true Tory". "Neither Hague nor his advisers seem to understand politics is a hard business ... The loyalty of his troops will be given only if he is seen to be loyal to Conservative traditions, something never understood by John Major."

Both Sir Brian Mawhinney, another former party chairman, and Lord Howe, former chancellor, criticised the way Mr Lilley's speech had been handled. Sir Brian said it was "not helpful" that it was "spun" as a break with Thatcherism on the same night that the party was celebrating the 20th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's first election victory. Lord Howe said the party had made a "serious mistake" in its tactics by signalling a major policy rethink in the middle of an election.