THE WOODWARD AFFAIR: Hague hit by Campbell's latest `Black Saturday'

WILLIAM HAGUE is starting to hate Saturdays. In recent weeks, the start of his weekend has been beset with crises: Jeffrey Archer's resignation as Tory candidate for mayor of London; the temporary rejection of Steven Norris as his replacement; and now the defection of the Tory MP Shaun Woodward to Labour.

"I dread it when the telephone rings on Saturday morning," one of Mr Hague's aides sighed last night. "You ask yourself - what's happened now? It's one bit of crisis management after another." To make matters worse, the latest "Black Saturday" disaster happened while Mr Hague and his wife Ffion were driving to a North Wales pub for a quiet weekend to celebrate their second wedding anniversary.

The timing of this weekend's crisis was no accident. Its designer was Tony Blair's press secretary, Alastair Campbell, who met Mr Woodward during one of his three visits to Downing Street and held another meeting with him away from No 10. When the agonising MP finally decided to join Labour, Mr Campbell decreed that his defection would have maximum impact if it hit the front pages of the Sunday newspapers.

Mr Campbell had choreographed two previous Tory defections for the Sunday press - those of Alan Howarth, now the Arts minister, in 1995 and Peter Temple-Morris last year. "If you don't feed them, they bite you," is one of Mr Campbell's maxims.

Despite a series of strong Commons performances, Mr Hague's image as a beleaguered, accident-prone Tory leader has inevitably been reinforced by the events of the past month.

The shambles over the choice of Tory candidate for London mayor was serious, letting Labour off the hook when it was in turmoil over Ken Livingstone's bid to win his party's nomination. Further revelations about Michael Ashcroft, the Tory treasurer, put the dreaded words "Tory sleaze" back in the headlines.

"Under William Hague, it's one step forward, two steps back," said one Tory MP last night. Another said: "You have to wonder whether William is jinxed. A lot of our MPs will start to panic if we don't get our act together soon. Time is running out."

Of all the recent Tory traumas, Mr Woodward's defection may prove to have the most far-reaching implications. Although the Tories are portraying him as a one-off careerist who jumped ship for his own advancement, his concerns about the direction of the Tory ship are widely shared.

Yesterday, Mr Woodward stressed that the two main reasons for his decision were not the Tory policy on gay rights - which led to his sacking as a frontbench spokesman this month - but the Tories' hardline policy on Europe and its guarantee to cut taxes, which he warned would lead to the closure of schools and hospitals. The irony is that Mr Woodward was one of the architects of the "tax bombshell" campaign which nuked Neil Kinnock's chances at the 1992 election, when he was the Conservative Party's director of communications.

At the heart of the issue is whether the Tories remain a "one-nation" party or whether they have "lurched to the right", as Mr Woodward insisted yesterday when he adopted the script of his new party.

At his first party conference as Tory leader in 1997, Mr Hague made a "one-nation" speech in which he said the party had to reach out to minority groups. He called for "an open Conservatism that is tolerant, that believes that freedom is about much more than economics, that freedom doesn't stop at the shop counter". A contrite, defeated Michael Portillo also preached the virtues of tolerance; "caring Conservatism" was back in fashion.

But left-wing Conservatives are convinced that Mr Hague has since abandoned the political centre ground in order to shore up his own shaky position as leader and appeal to the core voters who deserted the party in 1997.

Mr Woodward said yesterday that the "turning point" for him was the Tory conference in Blackpool in October. Other Tory MPs were also appalled by the rightward drift in the "Common Sense Revolution" policy and the increasingly anti-European rhetoric from Mr Hague and his Shadow Cabinet.

"They were appealing to the rump of the activists who were there," Ian Taylor, Tory MP for Esher, said yesterday. "They got an adrenalin rush, but it looked pretty revolting outside. The current position the Tories are taking is designed to make them feel more comfortable with opposition rather than to prepare for government."

Mr Taylor said the "knee-jerk vilification" of Mr Woodward by senior Tories yesterday was another sign of the party's "bunker mentality" and would appal ordinary voters.

Andrew Rowe, Tory MP for Faversham and Mid Kent, warned that the Tories were in danger of repeating the mistakes Labour made during its wilderness years in the 1980s. "If we pander to our hard-core activists, we will lose touch with mainstream thinking. That would be foolish," he said.

The Woodward affair also raises questions about Mr Hague's party management. Some Tory MPs believe he sacked Mr Woodward in order to mimic Tony Blair's "strong leadership". They blame James Arbuthnot, the Opposition Chief Whip, who sacked Mr Woodward with a message on his electronic pager.

But Tory officials insist that Mr Woodward was offered a sensible compromise when he refused to back the Tory line of opposing Labour's plans to scrap Section 28, which stops councils "promoting" homosexuality. They're convinced that he had already made up his mind to cross the Commons floor and was merely looking for an excuse.

There is no doubt that Mr Hague has had a battering recently. But aides say he will weather the storm and dismiss talk of a leadership crisis. "He is not going to be blown off course by the likes of Shaun Woodward," said one senior Conservative.

However, the question in the minds of many Tory MPs this Christmas will be: is the party heading for the rocks?

THE WORD OF WOODWARD

t "I will continue to serve William Hague loyally from the back benches"

Mr Woodward after he was sacked on 3 December

t "I can no longer support the increasingly right-wing policies of the Conservative Party, which you and your colleagues have adopted over the past two-and-a-half years"

In his resignation letter to William Hague on Saturday

t "I have no intention of standing down. I have not changed. I am still the Tory the people of Witney elected. It is the Tory party that has changed"

to The Independent on Sunday yesterday

t "You will be an outstanding addition and doubtless will give the Government hell! Good luck and of course any help you need, I will give" Letter to Tory MP Robert Syms, who replaced him

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