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Prepare for poll, Hague tells party

WILLIAM HAGUE has put the Tories on alert for a general election next spring and ordered them to shed their image as a "single issue party" on Europe. Although Tony Blair is unlikely to call an election before autumn next year at the earliest, the Conservative leader has demanded that the party speed up its preparations in case of a snap poll.

But Mr Hague's hopes of preserving a united front on Europe were undermined yesterday when Michael Heseltine warned that the party's hard line against the single currency would harm its election prospects. He told BBC Radio 4: "We have won very substantial numbers of victories in the last 40 years when we have been the party advocating closer British involvement in Europe."

Mr Heseltine confirmed he would join the pro-euro Britain in Europe campaign following last week's pledge by Mr Blair to lead it. He also called for a referendum on the euro before the general election to end the uncertainty facing British firms. Meanwhile, Michael Portillo, the Eurosceptic former cabinet minister, attacked Kenneth Clarke for co-ordinating his pro-euro statements with Mr Blair, saying he had narrowly avoided actions for which he could be expelled from the party.

Mr Hague has tacitly accepted criticism that his party risks being seen as interested only in Europe by demanding that a wide range of policies are unveiled over the next few months. The Tory leader has called for greater "clarity and conviction" on policy and ordered his Shadow Cabinet to be bold on issues such as health, education and taxation.

Ann Widdecombe, the Shadow Home Secretary, who is standing in for Mr Hague while he is on holiday, will today launch a summer campaign attacking Labour for "failing to deliver" its 1997 election promises.

But Mr Hague acknowledges that his party must also start to map out its alternative vision at the Tories' annual conference in October. A document called Agenda for Britain will highlight the main themes from the party's 19 policy groups, before detailed proposals are rolled out. A "war book" setting out the party's election strategy will be presented to Mr Hague shortly after the conference.

"We have got to show that we have practical, sharp-edged and workable solutions," one Tory official said yesterday. "Where we have campaigned on policy - transport, the constitution and Europe - we have closed the opinion poll gap with Labour."

The Tories are convinced that John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, is now the Government's "weak link" because of Britain's growing transport problems. They will say that he should not run the country when Mr Blair goes on holiday to Italy next week on the grounds that he cannot even run his giant Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Mr Hague's demand for fresh policy thinking will reassure senior Tories worried that the party had become a "ideas-free zone". Lord Patten, the former Education Secretary, recently told Tory MPs: "We must show that we have real ideas to peddle, other than opposition to the single currency. Politics is not a one-club game."

t Tory MP Andrew Tyrie last night urged the Neill committee on standards in public life to investigate 360 trips abroad by the special advisers of Labour ministers, at a cost of almost pounds 500,000 to taxpayers.