The Tory Leadership: Problems ahead in binding party wounds

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Before William Hague's runaway leadership result had been announced yesterday, it had been easy to find the voices of doom among Tory MPs in the Commons.

Those saying that whoever won would not last more than 18 months, before facing yet another leadership challenge, were not difficult to find.

But there were also significant numbers who believed that the bitterness of this month's leadership contest ran so deep that it would be impossible to bind the party's wounds, and that the party could yet break open.

That point was quickly picked up by Paddy Ashdown last night, with an appeal to disaffected moderates to come and find a "welcome home" with the Liberal Democrats.

Last week's Independent report of a "staged separation" of Conservative moderates, eventually resigning the party the whip and the party, is even more firmly on the cards following yesterday's repudiation of Mr Clarke, their torch-bearer.

On the right, the "betrayals" - of Michael Howard and Peter Lilley ditching their right-wing colleague John Redwood after the first ballot, and of Mr Redwood making his "marriage from hell" with Kenneth Clarke on Wednesday - were too much for some to forget or forgive.

The outrage that has been provoked in different camps was capped by Hague supporters, who said yesterday that they had been phoned by Mr Redwood on Sunday, two days before the second ballot, seeking to persuade them to switch temporarily to vote for him in order to block Clarke.

One MP who had considered that option said yesterday that he could not believe his ears when he had been told that Redwood was then thinking of forging an alliance on Tuesday night with a man whom he had attempted to kill on Sunday.

Mr Redwood's conduct was described by one MP as "duplicitous"; another suggested that it amounted to stag-night infidelity, just 48 hours before the wedding.

The conclusion of the hard-right MPs who had backed Redwood before switching yesterday to the victorious Hague, was that Redwood - who had stood on a platform of honesty, integrity and decency - was now a "busted flush". He had sold his soul to the highest bidder, and lost.

Phrases like, "Time to heal", "We've got to make it work", "There will be no spoilers now; we have to unite" were commonplace in the Commons last night. Deals, it was said, now had to be cut to bring people and the party together.

But some old hands had heard it all before, time and time again in a party that has so often appeared to be unleadable. The problem faced by Mr Hague is that both Clarke and Redwood have used such strong words about the new leader - as Labour was quick to point out in a detailed, quote- packed dossier on things that had been said about him - that it would be impossible for them to serve under such a man, unless Mr Redwood again eats his words.

But those hoping for the chance to reopen the leadership question in 1999, perhaps with Michael Portillo or Chris Patten running against each other, could yet be thwarted by the impending change of leadership election rules. It is just possible that the new leader might act to protect his own back, by making it much more difficult to challenge an incumbent leader.