Thatcher endorses Hague `to stop Clarke'

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Baroness Thatcher was swinging wavering Conservative MPs behind William Hague last night in a decisive move to stop Kenneth Clarke from snatching the leadership with the support of Euro-sceptics.

The former prime minister was leaving no doubt in MPs' minds that she was mounting a "stop Clarke" campaign, telling some of them: "Don't touch Ken. Remember his record."

Dressed in cobalt blue, Lady Thatcher appeared outside the Commons to give her public backing to Mr Hague, in spite of earlier reports that she was unimpressed by the 36-year-old contender for the leadership, and preferred Peter Lilley or Michael Howard.

Mr Howard and Mr Lilley looked on with Tory MPs as Lady Thatcher said Mr Hague would follow the style of leadership she had shown in office.

Fixing her eye on a reporter who asked about the pact between John Redwood and Mr Clarke, she said: "I am supporting William Hague. Have you got the name? Vote for William Hague to follow the same kind of government I led. Vote for William Hague on Thursday. Have you got the message?"

Tory MPs in the Redwood camp were also receiving the same treatment yesterday as Lady Thatcher tried to stop Mr Clarke snatching the leadership with the support of some Euro-sceptics.

Tory MPs who voted for John Redwood in the second ballot seemed to be quaking in their shoes at the prospect of speaking to her. One grasped a pink Commons slip asking him to call Lady Thatcher urgently, and said: "I have a few other calls to make first..."

But her message was having a telling effect. "I have spoken to her," one MP said. "She said I should not touch Ken and to think of his past record. I am going to have to think very hard about it, but I am seriously thinking of voting for Hague."

The arm-twisting will continue until the last minute today when MPs vote, but even old hands at fiction were non-plussed at the alliance between Mr Clarke and Mr Redwood.

Lord Archer, the best-selling novelist and a Hague-backer, said: "If I had written this in First Among Equals, they would never have believed it. They would have said, `Come on, Jeffrey - the extreme left getting together with the extreme right, we don't believe it'."

The Hague camp claimed eight Redwood deserters last night were at the Atrium, a fashionable Westminster restaurant, to give their support to Mr Hague's final press conference. They were: Patrick Nicholls, James Cran, Bernard Jenkin, Desmond Swayne, Sir Teddy Taylor, Bill Cash, Michael Colvin and John Townend.

Mr Townend, one of Mr Redwood's stalwart supporters who backed him for the leadership in 1995 against John Major, was angry at the decision to back Mr Clarke, and joined a meeting of Mr Redwood's supporters in the offices of the think-tank, Conservative 2000, to urge him, at the last minute, not to go ahead with his announcement.

Mr Townend said: "I find it absolutely bizarre that anyone who fought through Maastricht like I did should be thinking of electing the biggest Europhile of the lot. What they are doing - and I am sorry if they win - will hand over the party to the left."

Mr Townend, chairman of the right-wing 92 Group of Tory MPs, also wrote to the group's members urging them to back Mr Hague. He held a series of meetings with right-wing colleagues to try to persuade them not to back Mr Clarke's campaign. Others who switched to Mr Hague included John Whittingdale, Lady Thatcher's former political adviser.

Michael Howard's former campaign manager, Michael Spicer, joined the Hague camp. But some MPs attempted to deflate the Hague support, including Charles Wardell, who said he was backing the Clarke-Redwood ticket. Redwood supporters who were wavering last night included Andrew Hunter and Nicholas Winterton, both of whom had spoken to Mr Redwood in the morning and appeared to accept the deal with Mr Clarke.

There was some serious arm-twisting going on in the Commons lobbies as former Redwoodites urged their colleagues to reject Mr Clarke and swing behind Mr Hague.

The former "whipless" group was split, with Sir Teddy backing Mr Hague, but John Wilkinson, Sir Richard Body, and Teresa Gorman standing firm behind Mr Redwood.