WILLIAM HAGUE has warned the elite Conservative Carlton Club, which has voted twice not to admit women, that it must change its rules or lose him as a member.
In an interview with The Independent, he issued an ultimatum: "The Carlton is not just a gentlemen's luncheon club. It is one of the homes of the Conservative Party... It is just not acceptable that a club in that position does not admit women as full members."
Mr Hague said that he intended to campaign to ensure that the rule is changed and indicated he would resign his membership if a renewed vote went against him. "I don't want to bully people ... But they know that my position is very strongly held. I will do everything I can to make sure a third vote leads to a change.
"There is no point in me going round the country saying we should have more women candidates and bring more women into the Conservative Party and then say, `Sorry, women can't join the Carlton Club'." All Conservative leaders are members of the St James's club, founded after the Tory defeat of 1832. Baroness Thatcher had honorary membership.
More than half of club members who voted in the last ballot supported a change. But this fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional alterations. Mr Hagueintends to make this campaign a symbolic gesture of the party's commitment to encour-aging female candidates.
Mr Hague also extended an olive branch to the renegade former chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, saying that he would be happy to see him in the Shadow Cabinet, on condition that he did not openly campaign against the Tory leader's policy on the single currency.
"I often talk to Ken and he agrees with everything I have been saying about the economy. His judgement as chancellor was excellent. We get on very well together. We just disagree on the one issue. That does not stop him being a Conservative and a very valuable voice in the party," he said.
Mr Hague will travel to Rushcliffe, Mr Clarke's Nottinghamshire constituency, to address the annual Conservative Association dinner, a gesture seen as a symbolic mending of the rift over Europe. "Knowing Ken and me, we will find time for a pint of bitter."
Could Mr Clarke return to the Shadow Cabinet if he agreed not to oppose publicly the present policy before the next election? "There is no other obstacle to his returning," Mr Hague said.
But how could the former chancellor, whose support for Britain joining EMU is amply documented, sit in a Shadow Cabinet that wants to keep the country out of EMU for 10 years? "My policy is the one on which we will fight the next election, it doesn't have a specific time limit," Mr Hague said.
So if Labour held a referendum on EMU a year after the next election and won a "yes" vote, would Mr Hague accept the result? "We are a democratic party and we would accept the will of the people. But we will campaign vigorously for a `no' vote because a single currency is irreversible..."
No senior Tory figure hasemerged as the head of a potential "no" campaign. Should Michael Portillo lead the anti-EMU clan? "There should be a broad camp, not only identified with the Tory party. I hopeMichael Portillo to be a part of that," Mr Hague said. No mention of shared bitter-drinking accompanies this lukewarm endorsement.
Mr Hague has put up with the infuriating ancestral voices of Lady Thatcher, who has predicted he will lose the next election, and Sir Edward Heath, who has said he would not join the party if he were young today. "I don't feel dominated by them. I am doing my own thing,' he said. "I'm pleased to say that Margaret now has a much more up-to-date view of the next election."
The tension inherent in Mr Hague's changes to Tory style leave traditional Tories, the backbone of the party, feeling that he neglects their sensibilities to pursue New Labour on to the centre ground."I have to stand for what I believe in. I don't have time to make compromises with different factions," he said.
His directness and plain-speaking are clearly assets. His misfortune is that these virtues have not yet penetrated the public mind. Mr Hague's ratings remain dismal.
Maybe it was a mistake to start out wearing that baseball hat? "It was a hot day and I don't have much hair," he jokes. While he is giggling, I ask whether he believes he will ever be Prime Minister. The laugh stops. Quickly, he says: "Yes."
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