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Tories facing identity crisis

Defeated Hague could face a leadership challenge within days  

By Robin Oakley, CNN's European Political Editor

LONDON, England (CNN) -- William Hague's resignation as Tory leader was almost inevitable given his complete failure to dent Labour's huge majority in Thursday's election. In four years he has led his party nowhere, except to the second most humiliating defeat in its recent history.

His departure speech showed all the style and dignity which has marked Hague's leadership through four torrid years of personal vilification by the media, and he will carry on as caretaker until the party chooses his successor.

But the election debacle and Hague's decision to go will force the party to do some hard thinking, not just about its leadership but about its policies. The Tories appear to have lost touch with the mass support required to win an election.

Possible Tory leaders

Before the campaign began, Hague was criticised for jumping on too many short-term bandwagons in his efforts to please the media and land a blow on Labour. Once the campaign began, there was little consistency in the chosen targets day by day.

The emphasis on Europe and the encouragement of Lady Thatcher, the blue-suited embodiment of the 18 years of Tory rule that voters rejected in 1997, both turned out to be mistakes for which the leader has had to take the blame. Tax-cutting no longer seems to have the appeal it once had for the electorate.

The failure to make significant inroads into Labour's majority at this election means the Tories will likely face two more Parliaments in opposition. They know it is unlikely they can overturn Labour's huge continuing majority in a single election, and that may make some draw back from seeking the leadership of the party in too much of a hurry.

A rushed resolution of the leadership question did not profit the Tories in 1997 when John Major precipitated an immediate contest, and many wanted to stop and think more this time as the pattern of the new Parliament was established.

But Hague's decision to quit promptly means that potential contenders like Michael Portillo, Francis Maude, Iain Duncan-Smith (apparently the latest to be anointed by Lady Thatcher as the bearer of her sacred flame), Ann Widdecombe and David Davis will have to decide quickly whether to participate.

One complicating factor is the referendum on the euro, if, as expected, Prime Minister Tony Blair decides two years into the Parliament that he will recommend British entry and Chancellor Gordon Brown decides the economic conditions have been met.

The Tories are pledged to fight to "save the pound," except for Europhiles like former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, who is seen as leadership material but likely to be incapable of mustering sufficient support while the party is on its present Eurosceptic pitch.

By insisting that this year's general election was the last chance to save the pound and that a Labour government would "rig" a referendum, Hague has virtually conceded defeat in the referendum.

Many believe too that the government is unlikely to stage a referendum unless it believes it will win it. So the Tories run the risk of choosing a new leader and having him or her go down to defeat in the euro contest, becoming devalued instantly.

Some Eurosceptic Tories had wanted to keep Hague at least until the euro battle was decided. And some of the small band of Euro-enthusiast Tories had hoped he might want to hang on, in the hope that if the party loses the referendum contest it might change its ways and Clarke might come back into the leadership reckoning.

In the meantime the policy disputes begin between the Mods and Rockers. Harder-line right wingers like Widdecombe and Duncan-Smith will insist that the Conservative Party needs greater clarity, a clarity only obtained by moving to the right now that Labour occupies the centre ground.

Other former rightists like Maude and Portillo want the party to be more inclusive, to broaden its appeal to gays, single parents and ethnic minorities. In a sense they want to modernise the party.

They also may be inclined to revive the arguments begun a few years ago by Hague and Peter Lilley for turning the Tories into the party of effective public service delivery.

Last time those arguments were abandoned after they angered Conservative traditionalists, who said such moves amounted to abandoning the Thatcher legacy. But since Blair has scored another scorching success by appealing to the country to turn its back on Thatcherism, some Tories may now decide they have their cue to do the same.

• The Conservative Party
• The Labour Party
• The Liberal Democrat Party

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