The Tories: MPs get the blame for May election defeat

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The Independent Online
The Conservative rank-and-file savaged their MPs yesterday, blaming them for the May defeat. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, says that the Blackpool debate considerably strengthens the hand of William Hague.

A rare revolt in the Tory ranks was led by Lord Archer of Weston- super-Mare yesterday - something that could protect William Hague from any challenge from the likes of Michael Portillo or Chris Patten.

The former deputy chairman of the party struck a solid chord at the Blackpool conference, with a demand that grassroots members should be given an equal share, with MPs, in choosing future leaders of the Conservative Party.

That demand, along with persistent and vocal attacks on the parliamentary party for its disunity and disloyalty, formed a keynote of a three-hour debate on reform of the constitution. But the debate left Mr Hague with a much stronger mandate to lead his party - unchallenged.

The final proposals for democratic reform, which are to be put to a special party conference next spring, could now include a new protection for incumbent leaders, guarding them against the kind of coup that brought down Margaret Thatcher in 1990.

At the start of the debate, Sir Archie Hamilton, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs - which, alone, currently elects the leader - provoked a cry of protest from the hall when he said that MPs had to retain the lion's share in any vote. "Any new leader needs to command the support of the majority of the parliamentary party," he argued.

Under the existing reform plans, ordinary party members are being offered a "significant" proportion of votes for a new leader, which is put, unofficially, at between 20 per cent to 40 per cent of an electoral college. But Lord Archer upped that to 50 per cent, and one MP, Edward Leigh, and others called on the party to go the whole hog with a full one-member, one-vote system of democracy.

Defending the beleaguered parliamentary party, Sir Archie - one of Baroness Thatcher's parliamentary private secretaries when she was prime minister - argued that it was MPs who had initially elected her in 1975. "If that decision had lain with the Conservative grassroots," he said, "there is no way that Margaret would have won that leadership election."

That argument was promptly repudiated from the conference floor by Peter Golds, a councillor from Brent, north London, who told Sir Archie that Lady Thatcher had been ousted by the votes of just two MPs in 1990.

To a roar of applause, he then added: "They were the people that put Margaret Thatcher out. Not me; not you. This is our party, and I have to say to Sir Archie, `If we have the right to return a government, we have the right to have a say in who represents us as our leader.' We voted 80 per cent for William. William, we are behind you. We are not going to allow to happen to you what happened to John Major."

That warm-up was then hammered home in a tub-thumping speech from Lord Archer, who said: "The future of our party, the election of our leader, and discussion on future policy should not be left to a handful of MPs who think they have some superior wisdom we've not been afflicted with." He said it was not the party that had lost the last election, but the "circular firing squad" of MPs.

One leadership source told The Independent last night that the trigger mechanism under which incumbent leaders of the party can be challenged could be opened up to change in the final proposals for reform.

If that happened, it could provide a formidable - if not impossible - obstacle to any further prospect of leadership challenges. That could disappoint those hoping for a return of Mr Patten or Mr Portillo to the Commons and leadership of the party before the next election.