Hague in fighting form as poll shows he has failed to impress

 

On the eve of the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool, the party leader, Mr William Hague, has come out with fighting talk, saying he has a mandate to push through tough reforms.

In an interview with today's London Times, Mr Hague says the Tories are now "off our knees". He hoped the conference week would demonstrate that the party was beginning to regain its confidence.

"We're off our knees now. Yes, it will be a new experience. Yes, it is a shock. But we will be an effective Opposition," he said. "I think there is a point where we draw the line and say `We are back in business now."'

But the Tory leader also gets bad news today with an opinion poll branding him the worst-ever Conservative leader.

The Gallup poll, published in today's Daily Telegraph, shows that only 6 per cent think he would make the best prime minister, which gives him the worst ever start for a new leader. Only Labour's Michael Foot ever polled lower, but that was well into his leadership, not the start.

The poll also revealed that since Mr Hague became leader in July, support for the Conservatives has dropped, with Labour now standing at 60 per cent and the Tories on 22 per cent, a 38 per cent lead.

Labour has organised several ploys aimed at disrupting the Tory conference throughout the week. But its strategists claim that they need to do very little, other than giving the Conservatives a relatively free run to inflict damage on themselves.

The Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, who landed in Moscow for a high-profile visit yesterday, gave an interview in which he mischievously praised the long-running Tory leader, Baroness Thatcher for her strength and drive, inviting readers to make the comparison with Mr Hague.

Lady Thatcher, who endorsed Mr Hague in the leadership contest this summer, will be on the Tory conference platform on Wednesday.

Much of the British press have predicted a bumpy ride for the leadership at the conference.

Faced with a stinging rebuke by the Minister Without Portfolio, Mr Peter Mandelson, that Mr Hague should "stand up for himself" and not "retreat in the face of opposition to his reforms", the shadow trade and industry spokesman, Mr John Redwood, rallied to Mr Hague's defence, saying he was "giving clear leadership".

In Mr Hague's absence, Mr Redwood said the "back me or sack me" ballot - the result of which will be announced at the conference tomorrow - would carry Mr Hague forward to bring all strands of the party together. "He's made it absolutely crystal clear to the party that he wants to lead on the basis of party reforms, and you take William's leadership and the reforms or you don't get either," Mr Redwood said.

However, in a report on the party reform package by the BBC's On the Record programme, it emerged that Mr Hague is preparing to concede a free vote on the single currency, and he has left undecided the influence of party associations in choosing the party leader. Under the present system only the 164 MPs at Westminster took part in the vote for Mr Hague in June.

Adding to the difficulties facing Mr Hague were the results of an ICM poll for the Observer yesterday. It found that from a list of five key figures in the Tory party, the former chancellor, Mr Ken Clarke, polled 27 per cent of support, while Mr Hague came fourth with 11 per cent.

A Yorkshire multi-millionaire, furious about the William Hague leadership endorsement ballot, is to stage a rolling one-man protest at the Tory party conference despite failing to get an admittance ticket.

Dr Peter Gregory (41), founder of the Conservative Democratic Movement, will spend three days in Blackpool trying to muster support for his challenge to the ballot. He intends to try to get into the conference hall tomorrow, when its outcome will be announced.

Dr Gregory condemned the ballot, in which only around a third of members are thought to have taken part, as wholly inadequate.

"If a football captain says back me or sack me, and his team don't put their hands up, then he considers himself sacked. Abstentions should be counted as `nos'."