MICHAEL PORTILLO is set to reject moves for him to play a pivotal role in William Hague's fightback by turning down the job of Conservative Party chairman.
Close advisers of the beleaguered Tory leader are urging him to make Mr Portillo party chairman when he reshuffles his Shadow Cabinet after the European Parliament elections in June. But friends of Mr Portillo, who lost his Enfield Southgate seat at the 1997 general election, said yesterday that he did not want the chairmanship. They said his top priority was to win a Parliamentary seat at the next general election.
Mr Portillo's view will anger the Hague camp, who will regard it as a snub when the Tory leader is fighting for survival.Some have not given up hope of twisting Mr Portillo's arm. "Portillo would be a brilliant chairman," said one. "It would be very difficult for him to turn down the job in the party's hour of need. A lot of people would not forgive him for it."
Mr Portillo, the darling of the party's Thatcherite wing, has insisted that he supports Mr Hague. But last week he launched a withering attack on the leadership's decision to make a clean break with the Thatcher era by declaring the free market had only a limited role to play in health, education and welfare.
In the reshuffle, Michael Ancram, the Tory chairman, is likely to become the foreign affairs spokesman, succeeding Michael Howard, who has announced his decision to return to the back benches. Other former Cabinet ministers who are expected to leave the front bench at their own request include Sir Norman Fowler, the Shadow Home Secretary and Gillian Shephard, the environment spokesman. Mr Hague is likely to dismiss the deputy leader Peter Lilley, who provoked turmoil two weeks ago by announcing the rejection of a free-market approach to public services.
Yesterday Mr Hague made another attempt to steady Tory nerves ahead of tomorrow's local authority elections by playing down the crisis. He also appealed to his fractious MPs to display the same discipline shown by the party's grassroots activists. "Our canvassers and candidates on the doorstep have had a far better reaction than people in any Westminster hothouse or even in any radio studio would imagine," Mr Hague told BBC Radio. But Mr Hague played down the possible results of tomorrow's elections, following speculation amongst Tory MPs that he could be ousted this summer if the party does badly. Asked if he was happy to see the elections as a test of the two main parties' relative popularity, Mr Hague replied: "I'd be very happy for them to be a test of the Government's pledges, which are being broken one after the other." He said the results would "strengthen the rebuilding of the Conservative Party."
Lord Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary, urged Tory MPs to "belt up" yesterday, and appealed to Baroness Thatcher to rest on her laurels rather than rock the party's boat over current issues. He said the process of "licking our wounds" had gone on too long . "I think that Tory MPs have lost some of the basic sort of glue which traditionally kept the party together," he told BBC News Online.
Voting for a new Britain, page 8
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