Hague too young to be Tory leader, claims Heseltine

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Indy Politics

William Hague was too young and inexperienced to become Tory leader in 1997, Michael Heseltine says in his memoirs published today. His unflattering judgement will renew the simmering doubts inside the Tory party about Mr Hague's leadership, which have surfaced again after the party's failure to erode Labour's opinion poll lead this summer.

William Hague was too young and inexperienced to become Tory leader in 1997, Michael Heseltine says in his memoirs published today. His unflattering judgement will renew the simmering doubts inside the Tory party about Mr Hague's leadership, which have surfaced again after the party's failure to erode Labour's opinion poll lead this summer.

In his autobiography, Life In The Jungle, the former Deputy Prime Minister says there was "genuine dismay" amongst a "fair number" of Tory MPs at the prospect of Mr Hague's victory in the leadership election after John Major resigned.

"It was felt he was too young, too inexperienced and unproven for the task," says Mr Heseltine. He says Mr Major shared the doubts about Mr Hague, then 36, and made a last-minute attempt to persuade Mr Heseltine to enter the race.

Kenneth Clarke, the former Chancellor, whom Mr Heseltine was supporting, was prepared to stand aside after admitting he could not win. But Mr Heseltine's followers calculated he could defeat Mr Hague.

At the time, it was thought Mr Heseltine decided not to run because he had just suffered an angina attack. But in his book reveals, he says his consultant advised him there were no medical grounds not to stand, but told him, as a friend, he had "done enough" for the party.

In the end, Mr Heseltine decided not to run to avoid the "strain" of being " a caretaker leader attempting to hold together a divided party when what was wanted was a new broom and a new Eurosceptic direction".

He insists he was not against Mr Hague becoming leader but "for" the Europhile Mr Clarke. He describes Mr Hague as "an admirable and loyal" colleague in the Major Government, with whom he disagreed on only one issue -Europe.

But Mr Heseltine includes Mr Hague in a list of Cabinet Eurosceptics who, he said, put Mr Major under intense pressure on Europe. He accuses the sceptics of being responsible for an "unremitting flow of leaks to the national press which effectively brought to an end collective responsibility. The Government was deeply and irreconcilably divided over Europe and the Eurosceptics didn't mind exploiting it."

Despite their differences over Europe, Mr Hague asked Mr Heseltine to run as the Tory candidate for Mayor of London when Jeffrey Archer withdrew from the contest last November, the book discloses. Mr Heseltine decided "with some reluctance" not to stand for the same reasons he did not run for the party leadership.

The book gives Mr Heseltine's long-awaited account of the Westland helicopter crisis in 1986 which provoked his resignation from the Cabinet.

He accuses then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of backing a takeover by the American company Sikorsky after being phoned by General Alexander Haig, the former US Secretary of State, a senior adviser to Sikorsky's parent company. He says Mrs Thatcher did not disclose this at the time.

Mr Heseltine took his revenge in 1990 when he forced Baroness Thatcher's resignation as Prime Minister after challenging her for the party leadership. "Mrs Thatcher had gone and it was as though the poison had been let out of the system," he says.

Lord Tebbit, the former Tory chairman, said: "Michael Heseltine's account of his departure from the Thatcher Cabinet is remote from the truth."

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