Hanley fails to quell doubts on his future

Beleaguered Tory chairman insists party finances are healthy but displays little confidence about keeping his job for general election
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Jeremy Hanley was responding to questions about his future yesterday like a beleaguered football manager facing the axe, saying he was taking each game as it comes.

The Conservative Party chairman showed no confidence that he would be still in the job for the next general election, intensifying speculation that he could be replaced in the July Cabinet reshuffle by Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, or David Hunt, the public service minister, who was John Major's first choice for the chairmanship.

Asked at a press conference in London whether he would still be chairman at the next election, Mr Hanley refused to make any commitment.

Resorting to the Match of the Day formula, he said he was concentrating on Friday's outing for the Conservative Party at its party council meeting in Birmingham - a big fixture featuring the Prime Minister - and the campaign for the local elections in May. "I have been given a job to do and I do it most willingly," Mr Hanley said. "My immediate focus is the local government elections and I am fighting hard throughout the country."

He referred further questioners to the Downing Street reassurance that the Prime Minister had "full confidence" in Mr Hanley. The party chairman is well liked by the rank and file Tory supporters who attend party conferences and is likely to be given a warm show of sympathy on Friday at the Conservative Central Council, in spite of the continued reports of his gaffes.

The party chairman said that at Friday's conference he will set out the "excellent state of the Conservative Party's organisation and its finances . . ."

With the end of the financial year coinciding with his speech, Mr Hanley will be under renewed pressure to show he is tackling the party's overdraft of £15m at the Royal Bank of Scotland. He will give an upbeat outline summary to the party faithful before publication in June of the accounts for 1994-5.

Mr Hanley said that the figures in June would show the overdraft had been reduced and he planned to get it down to zero "within the reasonably near future" to fight the general election, although he stressed the debts were "inherited" from his predecessor, Chris Patten, now Governor of Hong Kong.

"There are some ridiculous stories in the newspapers. Our finances are in an extremely healthy state. We are reducing our borrowing that we inherited," he said. "The accounts for the end of the year, 31 March, will be published in June or July and you will see the healthy state of our finances.

"We are building up our war chest for the general election, whenever the Prime Minister wants to call it."

He said, in spite of reports to the contrary in the Independent, that party income was up and "we are in an extremely healthy state".

Senior party sources said Central Office had approached the Royal Bank three weeks ago to increase the repayment of its overdraft.

On Monday, the Independent quoted a source from the bank who said: "We are encouraging them to reduce their debt more quickly."