Tories gag dissenting voices from grassroots

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THE CONSERVATIVE Party has "gagged" its grassroots activists to stop criticism of William Hague and the Shadow Cabinet becoming public.

The clampdown follows a survey of party members which revealed discontent about Mr Hague's low profile and the "appalling" performance of the Tory opposition. Party activists admitted they could not even name many members of the Shadow Cabinet. Conservative Central Office is determined to prevent such unflattering comments being leaked to the press. After future surveys of grassroots opinion, hostile comments will be "edited out" by Andrew Cooper, the party's director of political operations, before a report summarising the views expressed is sent back to local discussion groups.

The move will be seen as an attempt to prevent further public criticism about the performance of Mr Hague and his frontbench team following their failure to narrow Labour's lead in the opinion polls.

Earlier this week, there was speculation that the Tory leader was being advised to sack "old guard" Shadow Cabinet members, such as John Redwood, Michael Howard and Gillian Shephard, because they reminded the voters of the last Tory government.

Although Mr Hague dismissed the rumours as "hopelessly fictitious", they unsettled Shadow Cabinet members.

The latest consultation exercise with local activists revealed their frustration at the failure of Mr Hague's team to land many punches on Tony Blair and his ministers. "The quality and quantity of Conservative opposition is appalling," said members in Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Central Office report, which would be censored under the new regime, said: "Several groups mentioned that they could not name many of the Shadow Cabinet, let alone their specific responsibilities."

Party activists in Torridge and West Devon "questioned whether more could be done to raise William Hague's profile as well as the need to attract younger people to the party".

The report added: "Many groups expressed concern at the lack of unity and organisation within the party ...

"There was general recognition that Labour has `stolen our clothes', making it much harder to oppose effectively." Party officials said yesterday that the discussion groups which expressed these views were held last year and were now "out of date".

They insisted that local party members would still be able to comment on the performance of the Tory leadership, and that Mr Hague wanted to improve communications with the grass roots.