Cannabis: Hague forced to retreat

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Indy Politics

William Hague performed a U-turn on Ann Widdecombe's "zero tolerance" plan for cannabis use yesterday in an attempt to end the Tories' disarray over their plans to crack down on drug abuse.

William Hague performed a U-turn on Ann Widdecombe's "zero tolerance" plan for cannabis use yesterday in an attempt to end the Tories' disarray over their plans to crack down on drug abuse.

The Tory leader met his beleaguered Shadow Home Secretary yesterday morning before he took personal charge of a damage-limitation exercise by giving a series of interviews on the party's policy.

Mr Hague in effect buried Miss Widdecombe's plans for a fixed penalty £100 fine for anyone caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis. While denying her proposals had been abandoned, he admitted "further debate and consultation" was needed. "We recognise that people have concerns about them and the practical implementation," he said.

Calling for a wide debate on drugs, Mr Hague said the party would consult the police, parents, drug abuse workers, GPs and teachers before including revised proposals in its general election manifesto. He suggested the Tories would only back a plan endorsed by the police, who were quick to attack the proposal unveiled by Ms Widdecombe at last week's Conservative Party conference.

But the Tory leader dismissed calls for him to move his Shadow Home Secretary, saying: "I have 150 per cent confidence in Ann Widdecombe. She will be a great, crime-fighting Home Secretary."

Mr Hague's allies said he remained determined to bring forward tough proposals to tackle both supply and demand of drugs. While conceding there had been a presentational disaster over the Widdecombe plan, they hope the Tories will get some credit for being more prepared to debate the issue than Labour. Seven Shadow Cabinet members admitted they had tried cannabis when they responded to a newspaper's survey.

The Tory leader played down suggestions that Miss Widdecombe had been undermined by some of her frontbench colleagues. He said: "I will take no further action against the Shadow Cabinet as I told them to give truthful answers." There have also been suggestions that allies of Michael Portillo, the Shadow Chancellor, have fuelled the revolt to damage Miss Widdecombe's prospects of defeating him in a future Tory leadership contest.

Eric Chalker, a spokesman for the Charter Movement which campaigns for greater democracy in the Tory party, said: "A great deal of what goes on at Shadow Cabinet level is motivated by ambition rather than the good of the party."

Paul Boateng, the Home Office Minister, criticised Mr Hague for backing Miss Widdecombe while trying to ditch a policy which was cleared in advance. "His opportunism and weakness in the face of a Shadow Cabinet revolt is clear to see," he said.

Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "This fiasco exemplifies just how out of touch William Hague's Conservative party is with Britain today."

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