Election 2001: The Party's over - Hague's History; Knives Are out after Poll Disaster

Article excerpt

Byline: OONAGH BLACKMAN and JAMES HARDY

WILLIAM HAGUE wakes up to political oblivion today as the plot to topple him begins in earnest.

Tory vultures began circling the mortally wounded Conservative leader last night as the party's devastating meltdown unfolded.

As Mr Hague went into hiding in his constituency, leader-in-waiting Michael Portillo stuck the knife in, admitting a second massive defeat would be devastating.

And even Mr Hague's close friend Jenny Tillotsen, former party chair in his constituency, said he should quit, adding: "I don't think he is the man for the job."

Mr Portillo made a half-hearted attempt to praise Mr Hague, saying: "I thought William led from the front all the time. I thought it was a good campaign.

"I would very much hope that whatever happens he will continue as leader. I think it would be a grave error for anyone this evening to start leaping to conclusions."

But minutes later he said losing so heavily again would be a major problem for the party.

He said: "If we have done badly then everyone in the party should draw breath, should reflect upon that, should see what lessons to draw - we should talk about it among ourselves.

"The problem will be that we lost heavily twice in a row. That would be a problem."

Mr Portillo steadfastedly refused to back Mr Hague as leader at the next election.

Despite being repeatedly pressed, all he would tell TV interviewers was: "I certainly think William should stay on.

"We will get together and see what has gone wrong. This is not the evening to make precipitive remarks. That is all I wish to say."

The warning for William Hague was clear behind Mr Portillo's faint praise after holding on to his Kensington and Chelsea seat.

He said in his acceptance speech: "This is another very disappointing result for us. It should lead to a period of reflection.

"I hope that no one will say anything hasty in the coming hours and days that anyone may live to regret."

As he left the count Mr Portillo was again pressed but said only: "I want William Hague to go on as our leader and that's all I wish to say on the matter."

Jenny Tillotsen buried her head in her hands as Tory losses came in and said: "It breaks my heart to say it but he will have to step down now. I don't think William can survive this.

"I have questioned before if he was the right man but I was always shouted down. This is a terrible way to find out I was right.

"But who do we get instead? My God, there isn't anyone. What are we going to do? …