Hague told `win or you're out'

THE THREAT to William Hague as Tory leader grew last night as his party's whips launched a desperate attempt to head off moves by his MPs to sack him. Mr Hague has lost the support of leading figures on the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, whose executive committee has a crucial role in deciding his fate.

After two weeks of turmoil over the leadership's rejection of a Thatcherite, free-market approach to public services, Tory grandees warned they would move against Mr Hague unless the party gained more than 1,000 seats in next Thursday's local elections.

The desperation in Tory ranks was shown when a member of the executive told The Independent Mr Hague could be deposed though there was no obvious successor in the wings.

"He is not going to make it and he has got to go," the senior Tory said. "We will sort out who replaces him later. It is like Edward Heath in 1975; no one expected Margaret Thatcher to come through."

There is a haemorrhage of support for Mr Hague at Westminster despite his attempt to quell the rebellion when he made an unscheduled address to his MPs on Wednesday.

The 10 Opposition whips began telephoning Tory MPs in an attempt to prevent them deserting him. One Tory insider said Mr Hague's position was worse than John Major's in 1995, when he resigned the party leadership and beat off a challenge from John Redwood. "Major had a hard core of loyalist MPs; William does not. He doesn't have any credit in the bank. A lot of MPs are neutral."

Party rules state Mr Hague would have to lose a vote of confidence among his 162 MPs before a leadership contest was triggered. But Mr Hague's allies admit privately that his survival is threatened.

Tory officials predicted the party will gain 500 seats, in line with its dismal opinion poll ratings, in next Thursday's council elections.

But many Tory MPs believe the party will have to gain between 1,000 and 1,200 seats to show it is "back in the race". If the party fails to make such gains, a repeat of the results in a general election would unseat Tory MPs.

"This is about self-preservation," one Tory frontbencher said last night. "If the MPs think we will do even worse than in the 1997 election, they will press the panic button." There was no sign of the Tory turmoil abating yesterday, despite Mr Hague's attempts to control the controversy provoked by Peter Lilley, his deputy, who enraged Tory MPs last week by saying the free market had only a limited role to play in health, education and welfare.

There was growing speculation that Mr Lilley would lose the deputy leadership - and his responsibility for party policy-making - when Mr Hague reshuffles his Shadow Cabinet after the European Parliament elections in June.

A prominent Tory grassroots activist, Eric Chalker, deputy chairman of the Charter Movement, which campaigns for greater democracy within the party, said ordinary party members "struggled" to support Mr Hague and there should be a leadership contest before the general election. He said: "It will be very difficult to summon up the belief that William Hague is ever going to be able to lead us to victory."

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