The Conservative leader sought to restore his battered credibility by making a plea for party unity in an unscheduled meeting with his fractious MPs at Westminster. He assured them it was "totally untrue" that he was ditching Thatcherism.
The move came as close allies of Mr Hague blamed the turmoil on Peter Lilley, the deputy leader, who sparked the controversy last week by declaring that the free market had only a limited role in improving health, education and welfare. Some Tory insiders suggested Mr Lilley was considering his position, and there was speculation Mr Hague would dismiss him when he reshuffles his Shadow Cabinet this summer.
Mr Hague won the backing of his Shadow Cabinet last night but came under fresh fire when he addressed his MPs. Only one of the five who spoke backed the leadership. Critics expressed concern about the timing of the switch. Nicholas Soames, the former defence minister, pointed out it made little sense during the middle of the election campaigns for local councils, and in Scotland and Wales.
But Mr Hague won applause when he declared: "We are here to take the party back to power, not to have theoretical arguments about every point of party policy."
Earlier the executive of the influential 1922 committee condemned the way the U-turn on public services had been announced. Mr Hague promised to inform MPs before similar changes in future. Afterwards, one right- wing MP said there was anger at the "inept" way the matter emerged in the press.
Later, in a speech to party activists in London, the Tory leader sought to build bridges with the many offended by Mr Lilley's rejection of Thatcherism. "I joined the Conservative Party because of Margaret Thatcher," he said, adding that she was "one of its truly great leaders". He also denied abandoning her free-market views.
At the same time, he insisted the party leadership was right to make clear its commitment to public services. "I will go through any number of arguments, take on anyone in debate, endure any criticism, do whatever it takes to get across this position on health and education that is true to the instincts and principles of our party." He insisted the Tories could change without rejecting Thatcherism. "We will always be proud of Margaret Thatcher and we will always be champions of the free market," he said.
The inner circle, page 9
Leading article; David Aaronovitch, Review, page 3Reuse content