Hague plots secret strategy to save his job amid election fears

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WILLIAM HAGUE is drawing up contingency plans to save his position as Tory leader, including the adoption of a more hardline stance on Europe and a snap reshuffle of the Shadow Cabinet.

Mr Hague's strategy is designed to head off the threat to his leadership, which may come to a head after today's local authority elections and the historic elections to the new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

The Tory leader, who alienated much of his party by rejecting a Thatcherite free-market approach to public services, is aiming to aim to regain the support of the Tory right by unveiling a tough, Euro-sceptic manifesto for next month's elections to the European Parliament.

The original draft has been beefed up after pressure from Eurosceptic members of the Shadow Cabinet. The manifesto may now harden the party's stance on the single currency, which Mr Hague has already ruled out joining in this Parliament and the next.

Although the hardline manifesto will be welcomed by the party's Thatcherite wing, Mr Hague's decision to "play the Euro card" risks provoking a damaging row with his party's pro-Europeans, led by Kenneth Clarke. The Tory Europhiles will accuse Mr Hague of breaking a temporary truce under which they agreed not to endorse the breakaway Pro Euro Conservative Party, which is contesting the European elections. In return, the leadership signalled it would not make the single currency a big issue in the election.

An announcement of the Tories' tougher line on Europe will be brought forward to the next few days if Mr Hague comes under pressure because of the election results. His Tory critics have threatened to move against him if the party fails to make a net gain of 1,000 seats in the council elections and attracts a lower share of the vote than the 31 per cent it managed at the 1997 general election.

Some of Mr Hague's close advisers are urging him to reshuffle the Shadow Cabinet as early as next week in an attempt to safeguard his own position.

He had been expected to delay the shake-up until after the European elections on 10 June, but advisers want the Tory leader to take the initiative before Tony Blair announces a cabinet reshuffle, probably at the end of next week. Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State for Scotland, will leave the Cabinet to head the Scottish Parliament and Alun Michael, the Welsh Secretary, hopes to stand down to become First Secretary in the Welsh Assembly.

Mr Hague is planning "a night of the long knives", according to Tory sources, in the hope that sweeping changes in his frontbench team will enable him to launch a fightback. "It's his trump card," said one aide.

Peter Lilley, the Conservative deputy leader, is expected to lose his job and his responsibility for policy after sparking turmoil in the party by renouncing a Thatcherite approach to health, education and welfare two weeks ago.

Members of the Tory "old guard" who will stand down include Michael Howard, the foreign affairs spokesman, and Sir Norman Fowler, whose post as shadow Home Secretary is likely to go to Ann Widdecombe in a promotion from her health brief. She may be succeeded as health spokesman by Tim Yeo.

Other Tories tipped for promotion include Liam Fox, the constitutional affairs spokesman, who may become party chairman. The junior frontbenchers Theresa May and Damian Green may win places in the Shadow Cabinet.

Senior Tories said last night that the timing of Mr Hague's reshuffle - as well as his new offensive on Europe - would be dictated by today's election results. The drastic plans to prop up his ailing leadership are a clear sign that he takes the threat to his position seriously.

A senior source told The Independent: "We managed to upset 95 per cent of the party by appearing to break with Thatcherism. If we go hard on Europe, we will have 95 per cent of the party with us."

However, the strategy will infuriate Mr Clarke and his allies, who include some Tory Euro MPs, raising the prospect of further damaging split in the run-up to the European elections.

The contingency plans suggest the Hague camp is worried about the results in today's polls. Party officials say that, while the row over Margaret Thatcher's legacy does not appear to have harmed the Tories with the voters, it has sapped the morale of party activists in a crucial election period.