Hague on warpath as Tories rally for fightback

Conservatives promise new approach as leader prepares to celebrate first year in office. Interview by Colin Brown
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The Independent Online
WILLIAM HAGUE said yesterday that he will vote for the age of consent for gay sex to be reduced to 16 when the Commons considers the issue later this month.

The Tory leader was in his office preparing for a tete-a-tete over dinner with TUC leaders. It may have sounded like the agenda of an Old Labour warhorse, but this, he said, was indicative of his new "listening" approach.

Next door, Archie Norman - his former boss at business consultants McKinsey - was telling the troops they would be facing a shake up at Conservative Central Office. It is a hard way to mark Mr Hague's first year in the job, but he says the time for excuses is over.

The party has seen a haemorrhage of its business backers, and is being forced to make cuts to keep within its pounds 4m overdraft limit. But Mr Hague said it was not just a cuts exercise. "I expect it to cost less but I expect it do more," he said of his party machine. "Archie is liberating the talent in them. Making sure that people know where they stand, who they report to."

Those who have their "talent liberated" may feel differently. Morale has been rock bottom, the party finances are said by insiders to be "dire", and Mr Norman has upset the party old guard with his McKinsey-style executive vim.

He said Mr Norman was beginning the review of staff, making sure that a leaner fitter party hits harder. "Some of it will be dead wood. We are making sure party resources are deployed in the right way. We will be doing a lot more attacking because there is more to attack.

"I told the Shadow Cabinet last week I expect a universally high level of activity," Mr Hague said. "We have now passed the point where anyone can have any excuse for being shell-shocked and not knowing what to do."

In his spartan office, Mr Hague sounded like an Asda executive after a bad set of figures. "We have just had a year where of course we spent a lot of time on our own internal party organisation. It was right to do that. We will be spending less time talking to each other and more time talking to the country. After the World Cup, we will be launching Listening to Britain."

Voting for lowering of the legal age for gay sex in the forthcoming vote in the Commons will raise a few eyebrows in the party, not least those of his newly-appointed shadow Health Secretary, Anne Widdecombe, who is campaigning on family values. Some die-hard Tories may think gay rights and family values do not go together, but Mr Hague sees no contradiction in his position.

"I will vote the same as in the past. I will listen to the debate. I voted for an equal age of consent, and unless somebody gives me some good arguments I have not heard yet, I will do so again. That is what I mean about supporting the family. I am not saying everybody has to live the same way.

"I think of marriage being a man and a woman living together, having children and bringing up a family, but I am not saying that you should try to prevent people living with each other in different ways."

On 19 June, he will be celebrating his first year as Conservative leader. Although he described his marriage to Ffion as the most important event of the past 12 months, since becoming leader he has been criticised for surrounding himself with eager, capable young men, but no senior women advisers.

"I brought a woman into the Shadow Cabinet and I have appointed women to the front bench [Theresa May made her promising debut this week]. I hope to appoint more women in the future, but I need more women MPs. I only have 14 at the moment.

"We are not going to go about that by all-women shortlists or quotas. That would be wrong in principle." Instead he is setting up a network for professional young women, under Peta Buscombe, appointed yesterday to encourage Tory women across the country to stand for Parliament.

The reshuffle which brought old-stagers such as Sir Norman Fowler and Miss Widdecombe back into the front line, however effective, showed the paucity of new blood available. He defends his choice of a Tory aristocrat, Michael Ancram, as party chairman to take over from Lord Parkinson at the annual conference in October. Michael, he says, is well-liked and affable. Mr Hague means he is good man to have on the "rubber-chicken" run to repair the damage with the party in the country after the defeat.

Mr Hague sees no contradiction in claiming to be the great moderniser of the Tory party while at the same time being forced into a last-ditch defence of the hereditary principle. He is now embarking on a constitutional battle over reform of the House of Lords, the like of which may not have been since the passing of the Parliament Act over 80 years ago.

Last night's dinner with the TUC leaders was his second big meal of the day. "I do eat a lot," he admitted. "I burn up a lot of fuel." For the task ahead, he will need all the energy he can get.