Hague steals high ground in the leadership race

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The decision of Michael Heseltine not to stand as a candidate in the Tory leadership contest yesterday threw the left of the Conservative party into disarray as it sought to find an acceptable successor to John Major.

Supporters of Kenneth Clarke had expected to throw their weight behind the ex-deputy prime minster if the pro-European ex-chancellor failed to win enough support in a first round of a leadership campaign to be a credible challenger. Most Tories believe he will be lucky to muster the backing of 40 of the 165 MPs who make up the electorate.

Mr Heseltine might have expected to win backing as a stop-gap from supporters of two candidates outside the Commons, Michael Portillo and Chris Patten.

Backers of William Hague, the former Welsh secretary, are preparing to steal the high ground on the right by calling on colleagues to skip a generation and back him. The 36-year-old ex-Cabinet minister is poised to declare his candidature this week and present himself as the answer to New Labour's youthful leader.

Peter Lilley, former social security secretary, will throw his hat into the ring and hope to inherit the support enjoyed by Mr Portillo. But supporters of the ex-defence secretary hope he can make a swift return to politics - perhaps as party chairman, a job which does not always fall to an MP. Michael Howard, former home secretary, is preparing to make opposition to the single currency a centrepiece of his campaign.

The timetable for the election will be laid down by the new executive of the backbench 1922 committee. Nominations will probably be called in late May with the contest likely in the first two weeks of June. Most MPs want a speedy contest, first to resolve the party's differences, and second to mount an effective assault on an inexperienced government. Mr Major will assemble a makeshift shadow cabinet in the interim, ensuring all the most important ministries are shadowed.

One leading backbench supporter of Mr Hague said: "He will wait and see over the weekend and take advice and take stock. He is not in a hurry. John Redwood is a busted flush. He is incapable of uniting the party. Kenneth Clarke is a complete has-been and largely to blame for much of our predicament. Michael Howard is a good man but not very presidential. "

One ex-minister said: "For Tony Blair read William Hague." In today's Independent on Sunday Tristan Garel-Jones argues there needs to be a "new conservatism to combat New Labour".

Ann Widdecombe, the former Home Office minister, gave a veiled warning that some old scores would be settled: "I don't think anybody who was running a premature leadership election while we were in government is entitled to ask for loyalty."