Hague tells party: Stop the purge of pro-European MPs

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William Hague ordered Tory Eurosceptics to drop plans to deselect prominent Europhiles yesterday in an attempt to head off further defections since Shaun Woodward's decision to join Labour.

William Hague ordered Tory Eurosceptics to drop plans to deselect prominent Europhiles yesterday in an attempt to head off further defections since Shaun Woodward's decision to join Labour.

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Hague said he wanted Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine and David Curry to be reselected. They all face moves to sack them because of their opposition to the party's hardline policy on Europe.

"The selection of candidates is up to constituencies," he said. "But I do not want party activists in general to be going around saying they want MPs to be deselected because they disagree with the party on one issue. I will actively discourage such moves.

"That sends a strong signal to people in the party who disagree with the European policy but are in every other respect loyal towards the party: they are not going to be driven out."

Although the party leader has never supported a "purge" of pro-Europeans, he is now adopting a more interventionist approach to reassure anxious Europhile MPs, Tory officials confirmed last night. The "word has gone out" on the party grapevine for grassroots Eurosceptics to back off, they said.

Mr Clarke and Mr Heseltine, who is under pressure from activists in his Henley constituency to retire, angered grassroots Tories by sharing a pro-EU platform with Tony Blair in October. Mr Curry, who resigned from the Shadow Cabinet over Mr Hague's line on the single currency, is under threat in his Skipton and Ripon seat.

With Labour talking up the prospect of further Tory defections, Mr Hague is holding a series of private meetings with prominent Tory left-wingers, including Mr Clarke and Mr Heseltine, which will continue in the new year. "I have very good relations with that wing of the party," said Mr Hague.

But he rejected calls from pro-Europeans to soften his opposition to the single currency. "The decision point in this is the next general election," he said.

In his first newspaper interview since Mr Woodward's defection, Mr Hague said he wanted the Tories to be a tolerant, one-nation party that welcomed people who disagree with his hard line on Europe.

He denied the Tories were hostile to gay rights, the issue that provoked Mr Woodward's sacking from the opposition front bench, and dismissed criticism that homosexuals are not welcome in the party as "a load of rubbish".

But he stressed that the Tories have to be disciplined as well as tolerant, saying: "People who support the party expect it to have discipline; one of the things that cost us the last election was that we weren't disciplined enough." Mr Hague admitted that the Woodward affair and difficulties over choosing a candidate for mayor of London have damaged the party but said: "It is the job of the captain to hold the helm steady and take the ship through and make sure we come out the other side."

Sir Tim Sainsbury, the former Tory minister and Mr Woodward's father-in-law, said the MP was wrong to switch to Labour but also warned Mr Hague that elections were won and lost in the political centre ground. He told Mr Hague: "Let's make clear we are the party of Europe, we believe it is overwhelmingly in Britain's interests not only to be a member of the European Union but to play an active, positive and leading role in Europe."

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