Tory old guard in challenge to Hague

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Indy Politics

Tory moderates led by former health secretary Stephen Dorrell are planning to challenge William Hague at the Conservative Party conference over the right-wing direction in which he is leading the Tory Party.

Tory moderates led by former health secretary Stephen Dorrell are planning to challenge William Hague at the Conservative Party conference over the right-wing direction in which he is leading the Tory Party.

Mr Dorrell will launch the battle to regain the "caring face of Conservatism" for the party as the new chairman of Parliamentary Conservative Mainstream, a group of moderate peers and Tory MPs.

John Major, the former Prime Minister, has been recruited as the star speaker at a Conservative conference fringe meeting organised by Conservative Mainstream - an umbrella group who want the Tories to fight for the centre ground.

Mr Major supported Mr Hague for the leadership but he attacked others in the Tory Party earlier this year who wanted to take Britain out of Europe.

He does not want to "do a Lady Thatcher" by undermining his successor's leadership, but the left have privately decided that the time has come to fight against the lurch to the right under Mr Hague.

The group, which includes Lord Howe, Lord Hurd, Ken Clarke, John Gummer, Michael Mates, Richard Needham, and Sir George Young - the only member on Mr Hague's Shadow Cabinet - were out in force for the launch of Michael Heseltine's memoirs, Life in the Jungle, last week at Somerset House. Mr Major was among the select band who were later taken back to Mr Heseltine's Belgravia house for a private celebratory dinner.

Mr Heseltine, president of the Tory Mainstream group, said he was proud of his enemies "and none of them are here..." None of the Tory high command attended the party. He told friends it was "like the gathering of the clans".

A source close to the group said; "We want to answer the criticism that we are just the grandees or the dinosaurs of the Tory Party. Stephen Dorrell intends to take a higher profile."

Members of the group are privately highly critical of Mr Hague's lack of charisma but say it is too late to ditch him as their leader. "The leadership is a poisoned chalice now. No one wants it before the election. We are stuck with him," said a Tory MP.

The group fears that Mr Hague's strident anti-euro stance and attacks on asylum seekers have given the Tories a hard right-wing image as "xenophobic little Englanders". The source said: "We want to change the tone to more caring Conservatism. We will be focusing more on changes on social policy, particularly health."

The Tories abandonment of the centre ground to secure their own core voters could mark a watershed at the next election for the Conservatives. If Mr Hague fails to make big inroads into Mr Blair's 170-seat majority in the Commons, he will be challenged immediately the election is over.

Michael Portillo, the Shadow Chancellor, remains the most potent threat but he has been afraid to strike, and has sworn loyalty until after the next election.

* Peter Mandelson yesterday launched an astonishing personal attack on William Hague, telling Labour supporters the Tory leader was "irritating" and would "get up everybody's nose" by polling day.

"I would say he is an embarrassment. When he appears on our television screens, Labour feels good. Every time he jumps on a bandwagon, he seems to slow it down," said Mr Mandelson at a Labour Progress seminar in Cranfield.

"Every time he endorses a view, it becomes less popular. He has become little more than a parrot. It is dangerous for a politician. He is somebody who is becoming irritating. He is an irritating person who is going to get up everybody's nose."

Mr Mandelson accused Mr Hague of pandering to the extremists in his party over Europe. "He is not standing up for Britain when he talks about renegotiating Britain's treaties. He is talking about appeasing the extremists in his own party," the Northern Ireland Secretary said.

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