Tory Conference: United and reformed we can win, Hague tells faithful

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The Independent Online
William Hague yesterday demanded unity and reform from his party after he had won the ballot endorsing his leadership. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, at the Blackpool conference, heard him call on his party to `stand tall' again.

A four-to-one vote for Mr Hague's leadership and his outline headings for party reform emerged from a ballot of Conservative members.

But with 399,203 ballot papers issued and only 143,299 giving Mr Hague their support, up to 64 per cent either did not vote, voted no (34,092), or spoiled their ballot (2,622).

Nevertheless, Mr Hague told the conference yesterday: "This is the week when we draw a line on the sand. The week when we stop apologising. The week when we get up off our knees and stand tall again. This is the week when the whole world will see we are back in business."

He urged rank-and-file representatives not to be afraid. "Have faith in our party's abiding values," he urged. "We have a mountain to climb, a hard battle to win. But together, united and reformed, we can and we will prevail."

The underlying demand for unity had earlier brought strong applause for John Major, when he had provided an introduction for the new leader.

Striking a chord with the loyalist conference, the former prime minister provoked a cry of protest from the hall when he said that perhaps he was to blame for the election defeat.

But there was strong applause when he added: "Perhaps divided views ... in the parliamentary party made our position untenable."

Mr Major said the party faced a simple choice: "Reform the party, back William Hague, rediscover the art of working together, fight every seat for every vote - or fight one another and lose elections."

He also hinted at criticism of Baroness Thatcher's sniping, saying: "I propose to give William Hague the unqualified support - in public and in private - that he has a right to expect from his predecessor.

"If I should disagree with William, I'll do it in private ...not on the media, not in anonymous briefings to the press that breed suspicion and distrust."

The demand for unity ran through "Blueprint for Change", Mr Hague's consultation paper for reform.

There were repeated calls for discipline, with greater central control over the management of the party in critical areas - such as the leadership election rules and the selection of candidates. The paper said: "The principles of democracy and decentralisation bring with them responsibility. Our intention is to build a party that is membership- and constituency- based."

But Eric Chalker, an elected member of the party's National Union executive - the voluntary wing - and a long-standing pro-democracy campaigner, told The Independent: "It's a topsy-turvy world. It is reverse accountability. There is more discipline than decentralisation."