How Britain Voted: Relieved Hague fumes over critics

Tory leadership
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SENIOR TORIES warned William Hague yesterday that he was still "on probation" as Tory leader despite the party's modest recovery in the local authority elections.

Mr Hague was embroiled in a damaging new internal row as he had to discipline Alan Duncan, one of his closest allies, who attacked his strategy as incoherent and told him to "go back to the drawing- board". The Tory leader gave Mr Duncan a "severe reprimand" and extracted a full apology from him. But he allowed him to carry on as a front bench spokesman on health.

Mr Duncan was highly critical of the Tory leadership's rejection of a Thatcherite, free-market approach to health and education. Close colleagues of Mr Duncan insisted that he was merely being a "candid friend" to Mr Hague, and that his views were widely the party

But Mr Hague was spitting blood, with aides saying the row was "the last thing he needed" after showing the Tories were "back in business" in Thursday's elections.

Mr Hague's allies said his party's gains of more than 1,300 seats in council elections would end speculation that he would be ousted as party leader this summer. There was huge relief in the Hague camp that the party just managed to improve on its 31 per cent share of the vote at the 1997 general election by winning in the town-hall polls in England.

But Mr Hague's critics said the European Parliament elections on 10 June would resolve whether he would lead the party at the next general election. "Unless we have some clear momentum, we will move against him," a senior MP told The Independent. "His position is on hold," said another Tory MP, adding: "It could still be all over for him. He is utterly incompetent and useless and he should go."

A right-wing Eurosceptic MP said he was ready to back Kenneth Clarke, the pro-European leader of the Tory left. "We should have done much better midway through the Parliament. He has got to go."

Mr Hague insisted that the council results were "pretty good" and showed his party had managed a "real revival" and a "huge advance in local government".

All three main parties took some comfort as the final results in of the town-hall elections were announced. The Tories could claim they were on the way back in their traditional heartlands, particularly in the south of England, although they failed to capture some of their target seats.

The Liberal Democrats lost ground to the Tories in the South and South- west, losing control of seven councils to the Tories and leaving another 12 with no party in overall control.

But the Liberal Democrats made new inroads into Labour's urban strongholds in the North, notably by capturing Sheffield. Ten Liberal Democrat gains in Sheffield - home of David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education - enabled the Liberal Democrats to seize control of the city once dubbed the capital of the "people's republic of South Yorkshire".

"This is a party that has moved from a party of protest to a party of power, no longer confined to the extremities in Britain," said Paddy Ashdown, who made a triumphant visit to Sheffield yesterday. "The Tories have been wiped out in the north of Britain."

Liberal Democrat leaders claimed their share of the council poll - around 27 per cent - was the best for many years.

However, Labour was delighted to see off the Tory threat in authorities such as Trafford, Broxtowe, Thanet, York and Milton Keynes. It said there had been "no Tory recovery" and that two years of Mr Hague's leadership had "delivered nothing" for his party.

Labour claimed the poll was the first time this century the governing party had won a bigger share of the vote than the Opposition in mid-term council elections. Tony Blair told a press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street: "They seem to me to be very good results for us. I think overall, in terms of the percentage of the vote, it was a very good result for us."