Politics: Hague fights back against the Tory snipers

William Hague, the Tory leader, last night fought back against sniping from Conservative critics of his leadership, who suggested he lacked experience. Fresh from the Labour landslide, the party is desperate to avoid further disunity. Anthony Bevins and Christian Wolmar report on another day of Tory turmoil.
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The Independent Online
Mr Hague showed signs of panic last night in response to a sudden deluge of criticism, when he opened up a planned private meeting of Tory activists to the media hordes who have suddenly scented blood.

He went on the attack after an awful Sunday, in which his broadside on Labour's handling of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales backfired, and Hugh Dykes, a former Tory MP, defected to the Liberal Democrats.

Speaking to 400 Tory voluntary workers from London and the South East, Mr Hague made no attempt to retract his remarks. He said that while the Tories would "not oppose just for the sake of opposing" the party would not "shy away from speaking our minds" even if "there are times when blunt speaking offends some people".

But he had clearly been stung by criticisms from both within and without the party over his remarks about the funeral. In particular, he seemed to respond to Lord Tebbit's suggestion that he should deal with practical political issues rather than royal matters.

Lord Tebbit intimated that Mr Hague's attack on the Government over Diana's funeral should be put down to inexperience. He said: "One would expect that any leaders would gain discretion with experience and perhaps, if I had been the leader of the party at this time, I would have been going on other issues."

In response, in his evening speech Mr Hague listed a series of betrayals by the Labour government. "Labour asked the British people to trust them with the economy ... What have we got instead? Four mortgage rate hikes ... and 17 tax rises in Gordon Brown's very first Budget."

Mr Hague's statement over Diana had earlier prompted outrage from senior Labour figures. Ron Davies, the Secretary of State for Wales, said Mr Hague's behaviour was "disgraceful" and "despicable". A Downing Street spokesman said it was "totally untrue" to say that the Government briefed in any way on any conversations between the Prime Minister and the Queen.

However, Mr Hague did receive some support. Stephen Dorrell, former Secretary of State for Health, said: "What he said yesterday expressed a sense of unease felt by many people about the way that, not the PM himself - I don't accuse him of this - but some of the people around him, have sought to look for party advantage after the events following her death."

The former chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, also defended him despite Mr Dykes's statement that he had left the party because Mr Clarke lost the leadership election to Mr Hague. "We're only a few months into the Parliament and it was bound to be the case that, whoever was leading the opposition, would get into difficulties," he said.