Tory chairman left exposed after new gaffe: Following another blunder, Jeremy Hanley is looking vulnerable. Colin Brown reports

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The Independent Online
THE CHAIRMAN of the Conservative Party was left looking accident-prone last night after a further gaffe, this time over the Chancellor's decision to raise interest rates.

Jeremy Hanley's confidence under fire was under question after the Tory party chairman expressed the hope that it would be enough to stop further increases in interest rates, thus breaking the ministerial golden rule not to fuel speculation over interest rates.

The gaffe, made when he was pressed about the impact on Tory party morale of the Chancellor's increase in interest rates, compounded his mistake at the weekend when he dismissed a brawl at Nigel Benn's championship boxing bout as 'just exuberance', undermining the Prime Minister's campaign against 'yob culture'.

Mr Hanley's baptism of fire won him sympathy and support among Tory MPs. Colleagues of the party chairman dismissed his 'gaffe' over law and order as media hype.

Peter Bottomley, Tory MP for Eltham and vice- chairman of the Tory backbench media committee, said he was making a formal complaint to John Birt, Director-General of the BBC, and accused the BBC of lowering its standards to 'tabloid journalism' in leading the news on Mr Hanley's remarks.

But Labour leaders believe Mr Hanley's performance cast doubt on his ability to withstand the pressure of a general election campaign without committing more clangers. Party sources said it showed Mr Hanley lacked the essential skill of being able to shoot safely from the hip without hitting himself in the foot. One Labour strategist said: 'We don't have to target him. He is causing self-inflicted damaged.'

It came as Mr Hanley launched the agenda for the party conference, which was intended to mark the Conservative fight-back against Labour under Tony Blair's leadership. In an attempt to limit the damage, Mr Hanley sought to play down any speculation about being dismissed by the Prime Minister. He said he would be chairman of the party for the next two-and-a-half years, including the general election.

He was appointed by John Major in the July reshuffle to improve party presentation in the run-up to the election. Mr Hanley, a former minister with experience at the Northern Ireland Office and Ministry of Defence, had gained a reputation for a 'safe pair of hands'.

His first few weeks at Central Office have demonstrated the difficulty of the job. Yesterday, he again betrayed a dangerous tendency towards sweeping statements - he told a press conference in London that local government by-election results in which the Tories held three out of four council seats showed the 'tide has turned'.

Mr Hanley, a popular speaker among Tory associations, with a showbusiness family background, continued to apologise for the mistake over the law-and-order issue, a rare admission for a modern politician.

However, his readiness to apologise kept the issue in the news. 'He has shown that being affable is just not good enough. It is a cruel world,' a Labour source said.

'Poor chap. He has brought a whiff of sincerity to politics, and he gets attacked for it. But he will learn,' a Tory MP said. His treatment by the media is certain to ensure he gets a show of support at the party conference.

(Photograph omitted)