March in step or else, says Hague

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The Independent Online
William Hague, the new Conservative leader, has tightened his grip on the party by striking a blow against powerful pressure groups of MPs.

In a move reminiscent of Labour's centralising reforms, Mr Hague has ordered all his front bench team to abandon membership of groups that organise slates in internal elections.

His direct attack on the factionalism which dogged the party in the last parliament is likely to end the influence of gatherings such as the 92 Group of right-wing MPs, the Positive European group and the Macleod group on the pro-European left.

Mr Hague has also insisted on greater co-ordination of his party's media message, with shadow ministers being asked to clear interview requests with his parliamentary political secretary, Alan Duncan.

Mr Duncan is being presented as the party's answer to Peter Mandelson - Labour's former director of campaigns and communications and now a minister.

One senior Conservative source said last week: "We have learnt a lot of lessons and we will have to update, but this will make Peter Mandelson look amateur. There is a renewed sense of purpose."

During the last decade the party's internal groups have played a leading role within the party's structures. The No Turning Back group and the Thatcherite 92 group were powerful forces on the right. The pro-Europeans struggled to match the right in terms of organisation, founding several groupings to try to fight back. The Mainstream group formed the basis of Kenneth Clarke's leadership bid, with backing from 70 MPs.

There was also a stern warning to Conservatives who leak from shadow Cabinet meetings. The source said: "Breaking shadow Cabinet confidences will be regarded as a capital offence."

Meanwhile there was evidence that Mr Hague had used his discretion in applying his "loyalty test" over the single currency. Shadow ministers in departments unrelated to foreign affairs will not be asked to promote the anti-single-currency line but will be expected to abide by it in public.

The Conservatives sought to keep up pressure on Tony Blair over allegations that Ron Davies, Secretary of State for Wales, threatened one of his backbenchers, Llew Smith, over his opposition to devolution. That claim was denied by Mr Blair last week in the Commons but repeated by Mr Smith the same day. Nigel Evans, opposition spokesman on Wales, called for Mr Davies to resign if he is unable to explain the allegations. He said: "Ron can run but he can't hide for much longer."

t Sir Edward Heath, the former Conservative prime minister, has dismissed Mr Hague as "a tragedy for the party". Speaking in Hong Kong, Sir Edward said: "He's got no ideas, no experience and no hope."