Hague and Portillo allies in fight for key Tory post

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Indy Politics

Allies of William Hague and Michael Portillo are to contest a key Conservative Party post in a battle that could help to resolve whether Mr Hague survives as Tory leader after the next general election.

Allies of William Hague and Michael Portillo are to contest a key Conservative Party post in a battle that could help to resolve whether Mr Hague survives as Tory leader after the next general election.

Eric Forth, the maverick MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, is expected to challenge Sir Archie Hamilton, a Hague loyalist, for his position as chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs this autumn.

The holder of the post would play a crucial role in deciding who should lead the Tories if the party fails to win the general election. Mr Hague intends to carry on, but he could face a challenge from Mr Portillo unless he achieves a big reduction in Tony Blair's 178-seat majority. Some senior Tories suggest Mr Hague will need to cut it to 50 or 60 seats to fight a second election as leader.

There is speculation that Mr Hague may try to pre-empt moves to oust him by calling a snap leadership election or holding a "back-me-or-sack me" referendum of Conservative Party members. To do so, he would need the backing of the 1922 Committee chairman and his aides would prefer a loyalist to hold the job.

Under the party's rules, a leadership contest is triggered if 15 per cent of Tory MPs submit a request for one to the chairman of the 1922 Committee. The chairman is supposed to keep their identities secret, and Mr Forth's fiercely independent streak would encourage anti-Hague rebels to come forward without fearing their names would be leaked.

If the plotters secured the support of 15 per cent of Tory MPs, Mr Hague would face a vote of confidence, and would need to win the backing of more than half his MPs to keep his job. If he failed to do so, a leadership election would be held and he would not be allowed to stand. The top two candidates chosen by Tory MPs would go into a run-off in which the winner would be elected by Conservative Party members.

Sir Archie, who is standing down as MP for Epsom and Ewell at the next election, has told friends he expects Mr Forth to seek to oust him after the Commons' summer break.

Mr Forth is regarded as a close ally of Mr Portillo, although he is believed to have been less impressed with his performance as shadow Chancellor since he returned to the Commons last November.

Mr Forth said: "As a matter of general principle, elected positions should be subject to elections from time to time. There may well be a contest for the 1922 chairmanship because we are are operating under rather unusual circumstances with Archie retiring."

He added: "This is not the sort of thing which just one person can decide ... This is a long way away and I have not made any final decision."

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