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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 17:12 GMT 18:12 UK
Robinson sees Hague's demise
The campaign might be over, now it's only the count that matters. Nick reports from deep within Conservative Central Office.
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By any stretch of the imagination this looks like a pretty dreadful night for the Tories. But hard for the spinning of the result as the hours roll by.
The Tories are past masters at this. I remember 10 years ago when Ken Baker, then Margaret Thatcher's party chairman, pretended that a dire set of local elections had been a triumph because the Tories had taken Wandsworth Council. Six months later she was out of Downing Street.
I recall too John Major in 1995 saying "back me or sack me" and failing to meet most people's target for the number of votes he needed to survive. Two years later the country gave its own verdict.
So tonight already Michael Portillo has said the Tories are on course to do better that Michael Foot's Labour Party - not the number of seats you understand (Foot got 209) but the share of the vote (28% for Labour in '83).
Faces at Tory Central Office are getting longer. I was just talking to a shadow cabinet member who told me: "We'll still make gains - just watch for Torbay."
As he finished the sentence the people of Torbay spoke, giving the Lib Dems over 50% of the vote - a huge tactical "keep the Tories out" statement.
That, plus a 2% fall in Birmingham Edgbaston, have this party really worried. And the worst thing for them is they do not really know what's going on. The information they've got simply does not match what's happening on the ground.
One other straw in the wind for conspiracy watchers - Michael Portillo has said that whatever happens "I hope William will stay on as leader".
It looks as though the big names will not push Hague out. They may wait for a peasants' revolt to do that for them.
"Stunned" is the word being used to describe the mood in the Tory war room. The one hope they have got is that there are seats that have yet to declare results. They still expect gains in Essex, Kent and other parts of the country.
They are beginning not to believe their own predictions. All started this night expecting some gains. The question was how many and what spin to put on those gains to keep William Hague in his job. But even that could now be in doubt.
The most telling moment of the night so far was Michael Ancram hesitating when asked whether William Hague would stay as leader.
After a short pause, he answered he will obviously be watching the results. I bet he is.
At last, a Tory gain. Romford in Essex has been won by a man with a bull terrier with a Union Jack coast called Spike (the dog, not the MP).
BBC number crunchers tell us that there's a swing to the Tories in seats they already hold so despite the troubles for them do not assume there will be a collapse.
"I'm back from the political dead," says Peter Mandelson, for which no doubt a nation will give thanks - whether the Labour Party will is perhaps a different matter.
In the most extraordinary acceptance speech I've heard since Paul Boateng claimed that the people of Brent had spoken up for the people of Soweto, Peter Mandelson insisted he was not a quitter and implied he would be back at the centre of British politics. I wonder if anyone's told Tony Blair that.
Michael Portillo's expressed the hope that "no one will say anything hasty" about this election. The truth is he and his supporters want a "great debate" about the future direction of the party before any leadership contest in which they fear their man would be the subject of endless painful personal attacks.
So lightning can strike twice in the same place. The Tories believed it could never be as bad again as it had been in 1997 but they were wrong. The shock at Tory Central Office is the same as four years ago (I was here then too). The difference is then they had an idea what to do about it - people who could be leaders, polices that could change, unity that could be found.
This time there's real bafflement. Hague's own people never expected to win but they did, even 24 hours ago, expect gains of 40 to 50 seats.
One county they felt sure they'd make progress in was Kent where asylum is a crucial issue. But they've not made a single gain there. So Hague's strategy has failed by its own tests as well as by those of his critics.
He's promised to set out his views on the way forward when he arrives in London in the next few hours. Will that include resignation? I simply don't know but I do know he was angry that John Major abandoned his party straight after the last election defeat.
Many Tories believe that what's needed now is not a swift personality battle but a long, hard look at what the Conservatives are for like the internal debates, led in 1975 by Keith Joseph, which shaped what came to be called Thatcherism.
A great night for Charles Kennedy and the Lib Dems. They have picked up the professional classes who seem no longer comfortable voting Tory. And, helped by tactical voting, they've gained seats in places that have never seen anything other than a Tory MP, for example, Guildford in Surrey, where the joke goes even the grass is blue.
A stunning victory for Tony Blair and Labour. Only one sour note for them - the dreadful turnout which means as few as one in four people have actively supported the government.
The defeat of a junior minister in Wyre Forest by an independent "save the NHS" candidate is a warning to Tony Blair of what may happen if he fails to deliver in his second term.
But today he and the close coterie of New Labourites will feel vindicated in everything they've done.
It's not Groundhog Day for the Tories, it's Groundhog Four Years.
They've woken up after four years of growing steadily more angry with Tony Blair, after foot-and-mouth, and his failure to deliver big improvements in health and transport. And they're exactly where they were before.
Four years ago I stood next to William Hague in Conservative Central Office while he watched Michael Portillo lose his seat.
I told him then that he could be the next Tory leader if he wanted to be. He may never forgive me for that.
Two questions about two big people dominate speculation about the Tory leadership.
1. Does Michael Portillo want the job? I must know the if he runs for it, he'll face personal scrutiny and attack from people (Lord Tebbitt and others) and papers (The Sun and others)who dislike his gay past and mistrust his change of style since losing his seat at the last election.
2. Ken Clarke. Does HE was the job and can any formula be found to allow him to lead a party 80% of which disagrees with him on Europe?
1 and 2 may be connected. Portillo was Clarke's deputy at the Treasury. The two men like and admire each other and have been talking in recent months about how much they agree on everything other than Europe
So Tony Blair's got what he said he always wanted - an unprecedented second term for Labour.
The question is will the achievement change his style, make him bolder perhaps, or as I suspect, is he instinctively a cautious politician who will believe his caution won for him last night?
Expect a reshuffle of big faces within hours - but not many of them.
The pressure is already on him to move on the euro. He personally believes a referendum can be won, and he is tempted to move now swiftly and capitalise on the Tory disarray, winning him an even bigger place in the history books or possibly destroying his premiership and his party.
It never gets easier when you are prime minister.
JUST HEARD THE IRISH HAVE VOTED AGAINST NICE TREATY + THE GOVT ADMITS HOSPTL WAITING LSTS ARE UP AGAIN. WOULD MR HAGUE LIKE TO CHANGE HIS MIND?
I'm in Downing Street, waiting for the news of the latest government reshuffle, and for news of the fourth Tory leadership contest in the last decade or so.
They are always fascinating. But it might be nice, though, if for once we had two parties debating with each other, running each other close. One day perhaps.
Got to file this piece quickly. Byers has just gone in and a wistful Margaret Beckett come out and oh, here comes Alistair Darling walking up the street.
Life goes on in the dizzy world of politics. It's been fun sharing it with you. Let's hope it won't be another four years before we do it again.
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