Widdecombe unrepentant as cannabis row rumbles on

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Indy Politics

Ann Widdecombe stood by her hardline anti-drugs policy yesterday as the controversy surrounding it triggered a fresh round of infighting over the future Tory party leadership.

Ann Widdecombe stood by her hardline anti-drugs policy yesterday as the controversy surrounding it triggered a fresh round of infighting over the future Tory party leadership.

She refused to back down over plans for automatic £100 fines for cannabis possession, saying William Hague, party leader, approved them. But the shadow Home Secretary's opponents, including supporters of Michael Portillo, shadow Chancellor, accused her of a big error of judgement in failing to clear the proposals with the police or Shadow Cabinet. Several colleagues said it proved Miss Widdecombe was "too out of touch" to succeed Mr Hague.

The cannabis policy was left in disarray after the Police Superintendents' Association said it was unworkable and party officials suggested Mr Hague was uncomfortable with the idea that it would lead to the criminalisation of hundreds of thousands of young people.

Conservative Central Office was particularly worried the media had been led to believe those given fixed-penalty notices would have a life-long criminal record.

But, in an attempt to bind Mr Hague and Mr Portillo to the policy, Miss Widdecombe used a fringe meeting yesterday to insist she had not watered down the plans. The Tory leader had told her she should not "row back", she said. "William has been aware of this policy - he had cleared this policy. Michael Portillo was aware of this policy - he was aware of the costs of this policy ... he knows all of that."

Miss Widdecombe said she was sure the policy would be included in the election manifesto. It was "rot" to say 42 per cent of the population would be criminalised by it. But sources said the first time the plans were seen was when Miss Widdecombe submitted her speech to Central Office on Friday. "Michael's eyes popped out when he saw this stuff about £100 fines," said a Portillo ally.

Tension in the Shadow Cabinet rose after the conference speeches by Mr Portillo and Miss Widdecombe, which some saw as more about their long-term ambitions to lead the party than winning the election. "They are like two children fighting over a prize - but neither of them is going to get it," said a shadow minister.

Some Tories admit there are now "two tribes", led by Mr Portillo and Miss Widdecombe, and say this has superseded party divisions over Europe. In his speech yesterday Mr Hague steered a careful course between the two factions.

Although the dispute damaged Miss Widdecombe's reputation, Hague allies admit she could win a leadership election. "The final choice is made by 350,000 people, average age 62, a majority of them women - that's her natural constituency," a Hague aide said yesterday. The Hague camp fears she might be electable by the party but unelectable as prime minister by voters.

The furore scuppered Tory plans to show they were "ready for government" and undermined Mr Hague's attempt to convince voters he is not a "one-man band". A Hague adviser said: "It's a shambles."

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