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Tuesday, 1 May, 2001, 08:48 GMT 09:48 UK
Hague fails to calm race row
Tory leader William Hague
Hague is facing Tory backlash
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

William Hague's attempt to close down the race row that has been rocking the Tories and pitched his leadership credibility into crisis appears to have failed.

Interventions by former leader Ted Heath, ex-party Chairman Norman Tebbitt and backbencher Laurence Robertson suggest the row is far from buried.

And, despite Lord Taylor's agreement to sign a letter supporting the Tories, he is still expressing his anger at the way Mr Hague has handled the crisis.

Only minutes after the Tory leader won a retraction and apology from backbencher John Townend over his controversial remarks on race, Lord Taylor dismissed the statement as "meaningless and worthless."

Tewkesbury MP Laurence Robertson
Robertson backed Townend
And his continuing rejection of the deal has added to speculation in Westminster, and among senior Tories, that he is on the verge of defecting to Labour.

Mr Hague hoped that by forcing Mr Townend into a climbdown and getting Lord Taylor to back the party he would defuse the row and back the peer into a corner making it impossible for him to defect.

Basically right

His first hope has already been dashed with demands for an explanation of the remark by Tewkesbury MP Mr Robertson that Mr Townend had been "basically right" on race.

And he is now holding his breath hoping that he has persuaded Lord Taylor not to defect.

If the peer does jump ship he will deliver a damaging new blow to Mr Hague's leadership and hand Labour a significant pre-election propaganda boost.

Mr Hague will go into the general election campaign with the crisis still fresh in voters' minds.

And he will be portrayed by the other parties as a leader not in control of his own party and captured by its extreme, even racist, wing.

Downing Street plot

But the defection would also again represent a significant coup for the Downing Street spin machine.

Parallels are already being drawn between the position of the Tory peer and former defectors, MP Shaun Woodward and millionaire party backer Ivan Massow.

Labour MP Shaun Woodward
Woodward was wooed
Both men fell out with their party over the so-called "anti-gay" Clause 28 and claimed the Tories had become intolerant.

And, in both cases, there was much speculation about their plans for days before they finally defected.

When they finally did the dirty deed it was accompanied by co-ordinated statements from them and their new parties putting the boot into the Tories.

It emerged, to nobody's surprise, that their defections had been minutely choreographed by Downing Street to squeeze the last drop of embarrassment out of the opposition.

Weak and ineffectual

In Mr Woodward's case he had been wooed for months by Labour and many claimed he had used the row over Clause 28 to give him the excuse to jump .

Many believe they see exactly the same game being played over Lord Taylor's future, although both he and the government robustly deny that.

Tory peer Lord Taylor
Taylor would not be first
There can be no doubt that the peer is deeply dismayed by William Hague's handling of the race row sparked by Mr Townend.

He is not the only one. There are many Tories who feel Mr Hague has been left looking weak and ineffectual in the face of Mr Townends' persistent refusal to toe the line.

They claim that, if he was going to sack Mr Townend for his outburst, as he now threatens, he should have done it after the first instance a month ago.

They fear he held back because he was afraid of alienating right-wing Tory supporters who sympathise with Mr Townends' views.

To make the threat now, they claim, looks like dithering and a belated attempt to look strong. And they see the apology as falling far short of the action required.

No contact

Mr Hague insists that sacking Mr Townend would only have given him and his comments more publicity.

This has all sparked a dangerous backlash against Mr Hague from inside the Tory party and presented him with a serious leadership challenge.

Tory MP John Townend
Towned sparked crisis
It is the last kind of crisis Mr Hague needs just before the election campaign and will leave a huge question mark over his leadership.

Labour, meanwhile, is enjoying every second of Mr Hague's pain - and many believe is even co-ordinating much of it.

The prime minister's official spokesman insists there has been no contact between Lord Taylor and the government.

But he was careful not to deny there may have been party contacts with Lord Taylor.

And the strength of the peer's language and the fact he has been unswayed by Mr Townends retraction and apology leave many believing he is within an ace of walking out of his party.

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See also:

30 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Tory peer renews threat to quit
14 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Parties will not exploit race issue
02 Aug 00 | UK Politics
A trio of defections
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