Hague under fire as Tories' poll revival falls flat

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William Hague's leadership of the Conservative Party faced renewed criticism yesterday, made worse by poor poll ratings and a strong attack on his tactics by a senior Tory MP.

William Hague's leadership of the Conservative Party faced renewed criticism yesterday, made worse by poor poll ratings and a strong attack on his tactics by a senior Tory MP.

Speculation about his future as leader was reignited by a Mori poll showing that support for the Conservatives has dropped to under 30 per cent for the first time in four months.

The Mori survey, which put Labour on 51 per cent, also found the number of the party's supporters certain to vote in an election had soared since the Chancellor's spending review in July.

As damaging were comments by David Davis, a former Tory minister and the chairman of the Commons' Public Accounts Committee, that Mr Hague had lost the initiative against the Government.Mr Davis told The Independent that the Conservatives had wasted their best chance before the general election to mount a vigorous "summer offensive" to keep Labour under pressure.

The Tories should have followed the example of Labour in 1996, when the Opposition harried the government of John Major with nationwide publicity campaigns and daily assaults on policy, he said.

"Why haven't we had a summer offensive of our own? Doing so would have kept in the public eye all the failures of Labour, which is the job of opposition," he said. "It would also have meant that the Government couldn't sit back and have a rest to re-evaluate its strategy or launch counter attacks on us."

Mr Davis also made it clear that he felt Mr Hague had been badly advised to tell a men's magazine that he had drunk 14 pints of beer a day in his youth. "With a real summer offensive, the 14 pints issue would have been given less prominence because we would have been raising real issues instead," he said.

Mr Davis's criticism is the first public expression of dissent within Tory ranks over the lack of activity this summer by the Tory front bench. Unlike Labour's frenetic campaign in 1996 when Glenda Jackson famously took the party's message to Benidorm's beaches, most Shadow Cabinet members have been on holiday in July and August. Mr Hague is on holiday in the United States, but some MPs feel the party chairman, Michael Ancram, has failed to make an impact in his absence.

This year's tactics contrast sharply with last year's, when Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, won widespread praise within the party when she took the helm while the leader was away, harrying the Government on the passports fiasco, police numbers and a range of other issues.

One ally said yesterday: "Ann did such a good job that I get the feeling William felt outdone. It can't be a coincidence that this year he's taken his holiday at the same time as hers."

Although there is no suggestion that Mr Hague will face a leadership challenge this side of the election, MPs are lining up behind Miss Widdecombe, the shadow Chancellor, Michael Portillo, and the party's foreign affairs spokesman, Francis Maude, for the battle for succession after the election.

The Mori poll shows the Tory leader's personal rating has fallen from minus 20 to minus 25, his lowest since April. Tory poll ratings had previously gone up after Mr Hague's high-profile statements about the conviction of the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin for shooting dead a burglar, asylum-seekers and crime.

Backed by a series of damaging Downing Street leaks that disrupted Labour's spending review, the Tories seemed to be on an upward curve. But Labour has used Gordon Brown's £43bn spending spree to claim the Tories would cut public services if they were returned to power.

The defection of Mr Hague's adviser Ivan Massow to Labour renewed allegations that the Conservatives were anti-women, anti-gay and out of touch. More worrying will be fresh evidence from Mori yesterday that Labour voters will not stay at home at the general election. The proportion who say they will vote has gone up from 54 per cent to 70 per cent.

Another Tory MP suggested the lack of activity by the party could cost Mr Hague. "The polls show a backward slippage and the Government is gaining its composure back. I cannot believe that we are not campaigning more. The next general election could be less than a year away and we have no sense of urgency," he said.

But one of Mr Hague's strongest supporters in the Shadow Cabinet said: "It was William who seized the agenda this year. The only progress we have made is down to him. He will get us up in the polls again."