Politics: Hague's allies defend him against dissent in the ranks

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William Hague faced new allegations of weak leadership yesterday as the Conservatives prepared for the annual conference in Blackpool. While some of his allies argue that time will prove him a strong leader, others are becoming restless. Fran Abrams, Political Correspondent, tested the mood of the Tories.

Senior Conservatives publicly acknowledged the enormity of the task they faced in getting their party re-elected yesterday amid new outbreaks of dissent.

They came to the defence of William Hague after the former Home office minister Ann Widdecombe cast doubt on the value of a recent endorsement ballot for the party leader and his reforms and senior Scottish Tories were reported to have attacked his choice of advisers.

There had been suggestions that Mr Hague had watered down plans to give members a greater say in leadership elections. A report yesterday said that he would present a paper to the party conference on the subject without spelling out what changes he proposed. It is believed that Mr Hague has decided to require associations to select by-election candidates from an approved list. There has also been a suggestion that at least 25 per cent of candidates interviewed for vacant seats should be women.

A new governing body, "the board", could be set up and would be elected by a national convention made up of association chairmen.

The Scottish party is also likely to see reforms which give it greater autonomy from the Smith Square headquarters in London. Full details will be discussed at a one-day conference in the new year, but they are thought to include a major recruitment drive, separate policy groups and disciplinary procedures for Scotland and greater financial freedom.

Party sources dismissed reports yesterday that senior Scottish Tories had told Mr Hague to ditch key aides such as Sebastian Coe, the former Olympic runner, Alan Duncan, MP for Melton and Rutland, and Gregor McKay, his press secretary. "William Hague is the leader. He takes the decisions," a spokesman said.

Peter Lilley, the shadow Chancellor, said in a television interview that the Tories had suffered "a very traumatic defeat indeed", adding that they had a major job to do in persuading voters that they had learnt from their mistakes and in winning back trust.

The party chairman, Lord Parkinson, insisted that a radical democratisation was under way. For the first time, the Tories would be one party instead of a series of constituency organisations. "We are going to a single party, people are going to have a greater say, the rank and file, in that organisation," Lord Parkinson said on BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend programme.

However, there were murmurings that all was not well. Ms Widdecombe criticised the decision to ask members simultaneously to endorse both Mr Hague and his reforms. "I think you should always avoid the appearance of manipulating. Even when you're not manipulating, you should avoid the appearance of doing so," she said on BBC1's On the Record.

Her view was supported by Richard Shepherd, the MP for Aldridge-Brownhills, who added that he feared the Tories were rushing into Blair-style reforms. "We are still in a state of shock after the most catastrophic defeat of this century and therefore I don't want us to leap to duplicate sort of reforms that are the essence of the Labour Party," he said.