The Week In Westminster: Hague is running out of scapegoats

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The Independent Online
CHAOTIC, DISASTROUS, incompetent and catastrophic were some of the more polite words used by bewildered Tory backbenchers to describe the worst fortnight, caused for their party by Peter Lilley and William Hague, since the general election.

It was just like the dog days of John Major's leadership with MPs queuing up to bemoan their fate to lobby journalists outside the Chamber and upstairs in the committee corridor as they entered and exited Room 14 for the 1922 Committee meeting addressed by Mr Hague. One loyalist did manage to mutter unconvincingly "we're back on track" but - cowering behind Nicholas Soames - raised his eyes skywards. His silent expression spoke volumes.

After standing shoulder to shoulder with Mr Lilley, and issuing dictatorial statements that Tories would have to "like it or lump it", Mr Hague then sounded the Majorite retreat back to watered down Thatcherism. By yesterday he had hung Mr Lilley out to dry as his own position looked vulnerable. Most Tory MPs believe Mr Lilley is now a dead duck and he has few supporters in the parliamentary party. Mr Hague's regular need for scapegoats to bolster his leadership means that Mr Lilley will probably be put out of his misery in the forthcoming reshuffle. Unfortunately, by dumping him, Mr Hague will give Labour a field day.

TORY BACKBENCHERS no longer hide the fact that the next general election is already lost and recognise, after two years of crises, that they have made a mistake by choosing Mr Hague. But unlike the previous Parliament, when backbenchers were blamed for undermining Mr Major, there are as yet no co-ordinated plots to oust Mr Hague. Because of the hammering they received after the general election from party workers accusing them of disloyalty, they are loath to trigger a leadership election.

Party rules require 25 MPs to sign a petition to Sir Archie Hamilton (chairman of the 1922 Committee) requesting a confidence vote. A simple majority of the 165 Tory MPs, in a secret ballot, decides Mr Hague's fate. If he loses, MPs then hold a series of ballots without Mr Hague, until two candidates emerge. These are then put to a ballot of all the party membership.

It is doubtful that there are 25 MPs willing to put their heads, publicly, above the parapet so the likelihood must be that Mr Hague will bumble through the next two years - with several more relaunches, a couple of shadow cabinet reshuffles and a few more vacuous wheezes -to an even worse result than last time.

In any event the alternatives look pretty unappetising. John Redwood, Michael Howard, Mr Lilley and Michael Heseltine are now out of the picture. Chris Patten and Michael Portillo are ineligible to stand. Francis Maude is, in the ironic words of one backbencher "like William Hague without the charisma". Ken Clarke would be the people's choice among the membership but he would have the Eurosceptics in Parliament ruining his efforts.

Since Baroness Thatcher's rule of politics states that "the unexpected always happens", this column has pounds 100 on Ann Widdecombe to lead the Tories into the next general election. Ms Widdecombe was badly treated by Mr Lilley, who wrongly blamed her for the leak of his original draft speech dumping Thatcherism. She is more popular than Mr Hague and therefore exempt from the leadership's briefings against shadow cabinet members such as Iain Duncan Smith and Mr Redwood. She was wheeled out to try to restore media calm but even she found the task formidable. She is, however, the only bright spark in the gang.

FIONA JONES was reinstated as Labour MP for Newark by the High Court, and within hours of the Speaker declaring that the seat was no longer vacant she took her place on the government benches.

Sitting next to the senior government whip Graham Allen, who masterminded her resurrection from embarrassment to hero status, she was loudly cheered as she intervened briefly in an environment debate. Labour MPs appear to have been chastened, however, by Ms Jones's experience regarding election expenses and, after revelations in this column that Stephen Twigg (Enfield Southgate) was due to launch a re-election fund with a pounds 200 a head dinner later this month, he has been ordered to cancel the event. Peter Mandelson, who was to have addressed the dinner, now has a free evening on 19 May to continue his hunt for a new flat.

THE COMMONS spent two days discussing the committee stage of the Finance Bill, giving the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, the chance to put her feet up. By tradition, the Speaker plays no part in deliberations on the Budget and control of the Chamber is handed over to Sir Alan Haselhurst, the senior Deputy Speaker, whose official title is Chairman of Ways and Means. For the purposes of the Finance Bill the other two deputy speakers become the First and Second Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means.

As an honour to senior members of the Speaker's Panel of Committee Chairmen, the unsung volunteers who preside over the standing committees upstairs, one or two are given a session on the floor of the House during the Finance Bill. So it was with surprise that MPs found the Tory backbencher John Butterfill, known officially as the Temporary Chairman, presiding over the Commons on Wednesday afternoon.

Roy Beggs (Ulster Unionist, East Antrim) made the best case against the fuel duty escalator increases in taxes on diesel during proceedings on the Finance Bill. Because of the massive difference in price between Northern Ireland and the Republic there is now huge trade in diesel fuel smuggling. With the added incentive of the high value of sterling over the punt, lorry operators are going to extraordinary lengths to obtain diesel from the Republic with considerable loss of revenue to the Exchequer.

Mr Beggs described how cattle lorries are fitted out with oversized fuel tanks. The ventilator shafts are stuffed with sheep fleeces and a few bleating sheep are put into the front of the lorries. Each time they come to a checkpoint, the sheep attract the sympathy of the police or Customs & Excise and, time and again, they are waved through.

Tractors and trailers fitted out with tanks are flooding across the border with loads of peat spread over them to disguise their real cargo.