'We need a compassionate way to get rid of Hague'

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The Independent Online
WHEN WILLIAM Hague gets to his feet to make his keynote speech today, he will address the party faithful with a personal mandate most political leaders would die for.

The 84 per cent "Yes" vote in the internal ballot on the euro was viewed by the Tory leader's supporters as a huge vote of confidence in his leadership as much as for his hardline stance on the single currency.

Yet as Mr Hague's personality rating remains stubbornly in single figures, some within the party are beginning to think the unthinkable.

No one seriously believes that the young leader will be dumped this Parliament, but in the bars and exhibition halls at the conference in Bournemouth some delegates are already talking about who will lead them after the next election.

A significant minority on both left and right believe that Mr Hague is in effect a caretaker leader, a seatwarmer for either the Thatcherite heir-apparent, Michael Portillo, or the former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke.

However, two other names crop up frequently on the fringe: the shadow Chancellor, Francis Maude; and, after her barnstorming performance earlier in the week, Ann Widdecombe, the health spokeswoman.

Stuart Senior, from Bournemouth, put the problem succinctly: "We've got to find a compassionate way of getting rid of Hague. He's just too wishy washy. Ken Clarke would be my man."

Giles Marshall, delegate for Worcester and vice-chairman of the Tory Reform Group, said that no matter how ineffective Mr Hague proved, he was almost certain to remain as leader before the next election.

"Whether he is good or bad, and personally I think he hasn't been any good, it's up to the MPs and they seem to like him. He may be a nice guy, but he hasn't made any impact on the public consciousness."

Derek Green, from Havant Conservative Association, said: "I always thought that William Hague should have been the next leader but one. But the problem was that there appeared to be no one else. Portillo has calmed down a lot. He has a fair amount of charisma and isn't just a wooden stick anymore."

Rosemary Dickson, from the Mole Valley, said: "At this stage, it is a little too far-fetched to talk about replacing William as leader. But Ann Widdecombe gave a marvellous performance here the other day. It was reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher at her best in the old days."

Shirley Pearson, of Beverley and Holderness Conservatives, agreed. "She was fantastic. She had no papers to read from and she was so funny. The best speech of the conference ..."

However, most delegates wanted to avoid speculation about the leadership and preferred to give their full backing to Mr Hague. Bryan Pearson, a Yorkshire delegate, was typical. "William Hague is a young man and 90 per cent of the delegates here are older and clearly have some reservations. But you have to remember that Tony Blair is a young man and he is doing well," he said.

"William hasn't got the forceful approach of Mrs Thatcher or her huge personality, but he will come across in time. We've chosen our leader and we should all get behind him."