Tories in Turmoil: `This never would have happened to Thatcher'

THEY DON'T discuss politics much in the Richmondshire Conservative Club, even when their MP, the Opposition leader William Hague, has faced his most difficult week.

Joining members sign as supporters of the party but few are activists. They prefer to spend a quiet afternoon playing a game of snooker, or to sit and chat over a pint of John Smith's.

"Actually, we don't discuss politics a lot in here," said Keith Balls, 70, a retired publican reading his newspaper over a pint. "Mr Hague is very pleasant." But that's about it.

There did not seem to be the adulation once enjoyed in such clubs by Baroness Thatcher. One member confided that Mr Hague was thought "a bit of an upstart" when he became MP for the area 10 years ago, at the age of 26, but had grown into the job. It hardly sounded as if he would be missed.

Ask one of the mature gents propping up the bar what he thinks of the local MP, and the reply is more likely to be: "Well, he hasn't bought a pint in here yet." It is a Yorkshireman's answer and perhaps Rotherham- born Mr Hague, who pops into the club fairly regularly, would appreciate it, whether true or false.

It is not that the 20 or so people in the club are unaware of Mr Hague's self-inflicted difficulties, but politics is something that happens down in London.

"We come to play snooker and drink beer," says one member who refuses to give his name because, when pressed, he conceded Mr Hague may have "jumped the gun" in sacking Viscount Cranborne and then picking up the deal to reprieve 91 hereditary peers.

Mr Hague lives only three miles from Richmond, one of the most picturesque towns of North Yorkshire, and will be there today to open the Georgian Christmas fayre in its cobbled market square.

Perhaps significantly, since this is Mr Hague's manor, the one portrait conspicuously absent on the club walls is that of Margaret Thatcher. The Queen is there, with John Major, Churchill - and Mr Hague.

Brian Robertshaw, a retired nurse, regrets the lady's absence and thinks Lord Cranborne would never have been allowed to hatch private deals if she had still been leader. "She had her finger on the pulse," he said. But like other club members - by no means necessarily Tory Association members - he believes Mr Hague acted correctly.

Harold Batty, 71, a retired undertaker, thinks "William and his good lady are smashing" and the MP can do no wrong. "You can't have people like that [Cranborne] doing deals without authorisation."

While Mr Hague's sprawling constituency has more than its fair share of hereditary peers, particularly in the dales west of Richmond, they are not the sort to frequent the Conservative Club and nor is there great deference towards them.

Toby Horton, Richmond party chairman, said Yorkshire people were very direct, and Mr Hague was no different. "I think most of the people in the constituency would take a pretty direct view that it is very sad but it is a question of discipline."

One Yorkshire peer, Lord Dartmouth, actually telephoned the Tories' northern- region office from America to applaud Mr Hague's sacking of Lord Cranborne.