Tories tell Hague to abandon populism

The Tories were hit by fresh infighting yesterday as backbench allies of Michael Portillo claimed William Hague's brand of right-wing populism had been rejected by voters last week.

Supporters of the shadow Chancellor contrasted the party's disastrous defeat in the Romsey by-election with the strong second place for Steven Norris in the mayoral contest.

They underlined how Mr Norris had adopted the "caring Conservatism" advocated by Mr Portillo and distanced himself from Mr Hague's line on homosexual rights, immigration and asylum-seekers.

The veiled criticism of Mr Hague came as he told the Shadow Cabinet last night that his party was firmly back in the race for the next general election, with a private poll showing the Tories on their best rating since 1992.

The survey, by the pollsters ICM, put Labour on 43 per cent to the Tories' 35 per cent. The private poll showed the Tories had moved ahead on two issues, law and order and asylum. Tory officials hailed the poll, conducted last weekend, as a vindication of Mr Hague's strategy for last week's elections.

One shadow cabinet ally of Mr Hague said: "Portillo's people are stirring it up. They should stop. It is destabilising."

Some Tory MPs have protested about plans to reward Mr Norris with a campaigning role at the general election. Another Hague ally said: "There is a lot of bad feeling about the attempt to make Norris into a hero. He did less well than our Greater London Assembly candidates, and he was difficult to handle during the campaign."

Some loyalist MPs have also accused John Whittingdale, Mr Hague's parliamentary private secretary, of furthering Mr Portillo's long-term leadership ambitions and blame him for not preventing the sacking from the Shadow Cabinet of John Redwood, who fell out with with Mr Portillo. But a Tory spokesman dismissed the suggestions, insisting there were no differences over strategy between Mr Hague and Mr Portillo.

Mr Hague's allies highlighted a poll of 1,000 voters conducted for the Conservative Party which showed Labour's opinion poll lead has halved to just eight points in the past month. They hope the poll will silence critics of the leader's decision to highlight issues such as the growth in the number of asylum-seekers and the jailing of the farmer Tony Martin.

The Tory leader will also respond to critics by extending the party's campaigns to issues such as health, education and the economy. "We are not one-club golfers," one aide said.

An upbeat Mr Hague told the Shadow Cabinet to redouble its efforts to tackle Labour on issues on which the Tories had not yet made inroads. Meanwhile, he insisted the poor result in Romsey was due to local and organisational problems rather than national political factors. "We have made enough progress now to know we stand a chance of winning the next election," Mr Hague said.

In April, ICM's monthly tracking poll put Labour on 46 per cent and the Tories on 31 per cent. Labour's lead narrowed to 10 points last autumn but the gap widened after the Tories were hit by crises, including the resignation of Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare as candidate for London mayor.