Hague launches rent-a-leader plan

William Hague has drafted in a new secret weapon in the war for members and funds - a crack team of former prime ministers, all ready to dine for their party.

For £1,000, says a document seen by The Independent, Conservative supporters can win the chance to eat with Margaret Thatcher, Edward Heath or John Major. A lucky few will even be invited to spend the evening with the man of the moment, William Hague.

Details of the scheme became known as Tory spokesmen denied reports that party membership was at its lowest level since the First World War. At 350,000, it had grown by 25,000 under William Hague's leadership, they said.

But they admitted the party was in need of money and members, and confirmed the three former premiers had been drafted in to help.

For those unable to afford £1,000, the party's new Millennium Members scheme still offers generous rewards. For £100, supporters will become "silver" members and will receive a limited edition scroll signed by each of the three former premiers and Mr Hague, plus "an exclusive photographic montage of the four leaders and a specially designed silver button pin".

The "silver" members will also have their names inscribed in a Millennium Book at Conservative Central Office and in a commemorative brochure.

"Gold" supporters will pay at least £500 and will be invited to a champagne reception with members of the Shadow Cabinet, MPs and "other dignitaries". They will also receive the scroll, the montage and a gold button pin, and will have their names inscribed on a plaque at Central Office as well as in the Millennium brochure.

The "platinum" members who have paid £1,000 will also receive a signed scroll, a photographic montage and a platinum button pin, and have their name engraved on a sculpture at Central Office, as well as seeing it in the brochure. They are also invited to contribute to party policy-making via a discussion group called Team 1000 - an offer bound to draw scorn from democracy campaigners in the party who want policy debated at annual conference.

A party spokesman said it had identified 300,000 potential supporters with the right income, background and professional qualifications to be likely backers. Each would get a leaflet. "What people expect for their £1,000 is the opportunity to rub shoulders with these great and good people," he said. "If my mum had the chance she would be chuffed to little bits."

Hilary Armstrong, Labour's Local Government minister, said: "The Tories are stuck in the past. The only thing William Hague can do to drum up support is to trade on the faded glory of his predecessors."

Labour admitted yesterday that its membership had slipped to 370,000 last year from 387,000 after hitting a high of 405,000 in 1997. The party is talking to unions about a contribution to the £20m it needs for its 2001 election campaign.