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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 14:52 GMT 15:52 UK

Leadership battle ignites feud

Nick Assinder

William Hague's decision to stand down as Tory leader is certain to pitch his party into a protracted bout of internal blood-letting.

The battle between the Eurosceptics and the Euroenthusiasts will finally burst into the open - with all the dangers to party unity inherent in such a feud.

And few believe the leadership campaign will not inevitably descend into backbiting, personal recriminations and backroom deals.

Each side will blame the other for making the Tories unelectable and individuals from opposing sides may try to forge alliances to maximise their potential support.

There have already been suggestions, roundly denied, that pro-European Ken Clarke could agree to support Michael Portillo's candidacy on the basis that, once voters had backed entry into the euro, that would be an end of the issue.

But, while Mr Hague may well have to take full responsibility for the Conservatives' election showing, none of what will now follow will be of his doing.

Save the party

The cold war between the two factions within the party was always going to erupt at some point following an election defeat, and possibly even if Mr Hague had won.

It is hard to think of any possible leader who could have averted that event.

Both sides hold their views with a passion and are equally convinced theirs is the only policy to save the party, let alone the country. For the front-liners in each camp, it is an issue that transcends party loyalty.

So even if Mr Hague had done enough to stay in his job, the issue of Europe and the single currency in particular, was bound to have eventually risen to the surface .

A Labour victory and the likelihood of a referendum on Britain's entry into the euro makes that an inevitability.

All Mr Hague's decision has done is to bring the inevitable forward by a few months.

And, despite their public calls for a period of calm reflection, most of the likely leadership candidates were staking their claims within hours of Mr Hague's announcement.

Xenophobic path

The pro Europeans led by former Tory deputy Michael Heseltine and Mr Clarke - clearly now in a minority - were amongst the first to break cover after keeping their heads down during the campaign in an attempt to avoid any of the blame for defeat.

Mr Heseltine slid the knife into Mr Hague and the Eurosceptics, claiming they had taken the party down a right-wing and xenophobic path, and suggested only Mr Clarke could save the Tories.

Mr Clarke has claimed he does not believe he would be acceptable to the current, Eurosceptic, party but has carefully refused to rule himself out of a leadership contest.

Meanwhile likely contenders Michael Portillo, Ann Widdecombe and John Redwood also refused to rule themselves out while, at the same time insisting a period of reflection was needed.

And that is clearly the current line to take. No one wants to be the first to show their hand, particularly so soon after the second election humiliation, but they all want to remind people they are there.

And what the optimists in the party hope is that the leadership battle will finally end the internal feuding once and for all and the party will be able to concentrate on the next election.

Whether that is a realistic expectation will be tested all summer.



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