Gingrich, once hero of the US right, to quit as Speaker

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NEWT GINGRICH, the right-wing Republican politician once tipped as a future presidential candidate, last night effectively ended his political career when he announced he would not seek re-election as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Mr Gingrich had taken some of the blame for the Republicans' unexpected losses at the mid-term Congressional elections, but had indicated he would fight for his job.

His departure is a deeply ironic consequence of an election which could have ended the career of President Bill Clinton, now stronger than before.

Mr Gingrich will remain in the House for the next two years as Representative from the suburb of Atlanta where he lives. Four years ago, he led Republicans to their first majority in the House for 40 years on his Reaganite Charter for America which advocated a low-tax, low-welfare economy.

Mr Gingrich's announcement came at the end of a day in which the turmoil in the Republican Party caused by the party's poor election showing had burst into the open, with formal challenges both to Mr Gingrich as Speaker and to the House Majority leader, Dick Armey. Mr Gingrich may have been swayed by the fact that the challenger for his post was his long-time friend and ally, Bob Livingston, a Louisiana Representative. It was Mr Gingrich who appointed Mr Livingston to his job as chairman of the powerful appropriations committee - the post that gave him the base for his challenge to the Speaker.

The challenger to Mr Armey is Steve Largent, Representative from Oklahoma. He is not allied to Mr Livingston and said that his decision to challenge Mr Armey was taken separately. Announcing his candidacy, Mr Largent was forthright: "The question is whether we keep on the crew of the Titanic, or get a new captain," he said.

Mr Livingston, however, was more indulgent, speaking of his agony at having to move against his friend whom he described as a "true revolutionary, a man of Churchillian proportions". But he also heralded the end of the Gingrich-inspired revolution thus: "We must choose between inspirational speeches and perspiration-filled achievement."

Mr Livingston spoke unambiguously, too, of the dilemma facing Republicans after their election losses - a dilemma which is sharpened by Mr Gingrich's departure from the Speaker's chair. "We are at a crossroads for our party, at a crossroads for the House of Representatives, at a crossroads for the country," he said.

In the mid-term elections, the Republicans suffered a net loss of five seats in the House, broke even in the Senate, and saw three states - California, Alabama and South Carolina - elect Democratic governors. While they retained control of both Houses of Congress, the dozen or more gains they had conservatively estimated failed to materialise. Their slim majority in the House makes passage of legislation impossible without Democratic support.

Mr Gingrich accepted at least part of the blame within hours of the election results, but he stressed that the Republicans still controlled both Houses and a majority of state governors' mansions and indicated he would fight on. His emollient pronouncements, however, did nothing to stem the discontent in party ranks.

He was accused of steering a lacklustre and issue-less campaign which was drowned out by the Democrats' aggressive hammering of issues like education, pensions and health.

Some on the right of the party, and especially the religious right, said he should have exploited President Clinton's sex scandal and campaigned on a platform of integrity and moral leadership.

Others, probably a majority, contended that it was the decision - attributed to Mr Gingrich personally - to exploit the scandal in television advertisements just a week before the election that proved the party's undoing.

Although the three adverts only alluded to the scandal and dwelt not on sex but on the President's deceitfulness, Mr Gingrich's critics say that they had the effect of reminding the electorate of the impeachment issue, convincing voters they had more to lose from Mr Clinton's departure than from his remaining in office.

Exit polls on election day showed a majority of voters (59 per cent) opposed impeachment.

Hinting at which direction he would take the Congressional party if he succeeded Mr Gingrich, Mr Livingston placed himself firmly on the "social conservative" wing of the party that has become associated with George W Bush, the highly successful governor of Texas and son of the former president Bush, who was re-elected on Tuesday with a majority of more than 30 per cent.

What the election showed, said Mr Livingston, is that Americans "do not want more American politicians with good speeches, but ideas - ideas that work for the American people".

Among the ideas he listed were not only the standard right-wing fare of "smaller government and fewer taxes", but George . Bush-style "social inclusion": "Preserving and strengthening social security, the pension system, accessible and affordable healthcare", provision for the "infirm, elderly and underprivileged".