Major plans an emotional curtain-call

John Major will go to the Tories' Blackpool conference to back the new leader. Will that be useful? Yes, says Colin Brown: Mr Hague needs all the help he can get.
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The Independent Online
The former prime minister, John Major, will make an emotional return to the platform at the opening of the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool to rally support for William Hague.

The Tory leader's friends said that Mr Major would be appealing for the loyalty of the conference following the party's worst election defeat this century.

"He will be backing William," said a source. It will be too late to influence the result of a ballot on Mr Hague's leadership, but the former prime minister is expected to help shore up his embattled successor with an appeal for more loyalty than he himself had when in office.

Mr Major, as reported in The Independent on Saturday, spent last week on holiday with Chris Patten at the Spanish home of Tristan Garel Jones, who laughed off suggestions that it was a "plotting" meeting.

The former prime minister will give his backing to Mr Hague on the first day of the conference, minutes before the results are announced of the Tory Party membership ballot.

The ballot is expected to endorse Mr Hague's leadership, in spite of protests by Alan Clark and others that the leadership question is being mixed up with a request for a mandate for reforming the structure of the party. Mr Hague's keynote leadership address will be the finale of the conference on Friday, as usual.

Mr Hague yesterday repeated the "back me or sack me" threat which he has made from the outset of his leadership, in the clear belief that it will be a forgone conclusion. It could backfire if the enfeebled party organisation produces a low turnout for the ballot. Some ballot forms are being returned marked "deceased".

The Tory leader's ultimatum to the party's grassroots activists provoked a rush of bets that he will be ousted. Bookmakers William Hill yesterday were taking bets on other potential leaders, notably party vice-chairman and rising star Archie Norman, the former Asda boss, who is quoted at 20/1.

Michael Portillo, the former Secretary of State for Defence who lost his seat at the General Election and former party chairman, and Mr Patten, the former Hong Kong governor, are the two other favourites.

"If Mr Hague finds himself under pressure at the party conference we may have to open a full book on Mr Hague's successor," a spokesman for William Hill said.

The odds against Mr Hague remaining as leader were being quoted as he resumed his national "listening" tour with a visit to East Anglia ahead of next month's party conference in Blackpool.