Tory dissidents talking to Blair

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The Independent Online
The Prime Minister's office yesterday confirmed that up to a dozen Conservative MPs are actively talking to Labour about the possibility of a Tory split if William Hague is elected leader of the party this week.

A Labour spokesman said there had been contacts with Labour in which the Tories had spoken of a number of options - the possibility of voting alliances with the Government, a breakaway party, or even "crossing the floor" of the House of Commons to join the already massed ranks of Labour MPs.

"There is profound disquiet," the spokesman said, speaking on the fringe of the Amsterdam summit. He said that pro-European Conservative MPs had been "horrified" by the intransigent and increasingly hardline position taken by Mr Hague over recent days.

The Clarke camp claimed that rumours on the eve of today's second round ballot for the leadership were put around to destabilise Mr Clarke's chances, because Labour fear him most. But the fears deepened in the Clarke camp last night after all three candidates addressed Tory MPs in a Commons committee room..

Clarke supporters claimed that Mr Hague behind closed doors had warned that he would require members of the Shadow Cabinet to sign documents supporting his line on Euro-sceptic policy on a single currency. He also warned he would be prepared to pull out of EU treaties if Britain failed to repatriate some of its powers from Brussels. Some Tory MPs warned it would condemn the Tories to ten years in Opposition.

Ann Widdecombe, a Euro-sceptic who is backing Mr Clarke as the "biggest hitter", also criticised Mr Hague for threatening to drive the former Chancellor and Michael Heseltine off the Tory front bench if he wins. "I think William has made it unnecessarily difficult for people. It is a pity William has said whoever is in the Shadow Cabinet has to got to sign up to not having a single currency. It is no longer a serious issue for the next five years." Calling for unity, Mr Clarke won praise for saying he would include Euro-sceptics in his Shadow team and warning MPs the leadership election was "not about the fine policy positions on the single currency or European as a whole".

In spite of a performance judged poor by his critics, Mr Hague's received a decisive push to his bandwagon - possibly helping him win in the third ballot on Thursday - by the support of Gillian Shephard, a former Lilley supporter, and six former ministers, including Francis Maude, Simon Burns, Michael Fallon, and David Maclean.

The exposure of behind the scenes talks between Labour and disaffected Tories came after The Independent asked at a summit briefing whether there had been any approaches made by Tory MPs to Tony Blair's office. Speaking with his Labour party hat on, Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's chief press secretary, said: "It is true to say that we have had a number of links, informal and others, with Conservative MPs and we intend to keep those links.

"In the Tory leadership election, two of the candidates, and one of the realistic candidates, have ruled out a single currency under any circumstances.

Later, a source close to Mr Blair said pre-election talks had been based on the assumption of a small Labour government majority of 20 or 30 seats. But the disaffected Tories - none of them in the Shadow Cabinet - had kept up contact after last month's election. Even though Labour need for their support was not so great now that it had such a massive Commons majority any addition support was to be welcomed, the source added. He emphasised that he was not talking of mere Commons tearoom chat between Conservative and Labour MPs; the talks were at a higher level then that.