Election 2001: Winners & Losers - Hague's History; Knives Are out after Poll Disaster

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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.

Leader-in-waiting Michael Portillo stuck the knife into Mr Hague, confessing that a second massive defeat would be devastating.

He 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 admitted that 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."

But Mr Portillo refused to talk openly about the leadership, repeatedly ducking questions when BBC TV's Jeremy Paxman told him that 34 per cent of active Tories wanted him as leader.

But when pushed about why more current Tories wanted him to be leader than past Tories, he said: "I really don't know. I haven't thought about the question and I am not even sure the question merits thinking about."

Former Chancellor Ken Clarke blatantly held back from a ringing endorsement of Mr Hague and plunged the knife into him over the euro.

Pro-European Mr Clarke is tipped to throw his weight - and the support of Tory moderates - behind Mr Portillo in a leadership battle.

Asked if he still backed Mr Hague, he said: "I think William will stay on - but I am not going to be drawn further than that on the issue.

"William will carry on in his job, is my personal prediction. But I don't think it's sensible at all to talk about these things."

Questioned about a referendum on the euro, Mr Clarke said: "I hope they will go as soon as the economic conditions are right."

Mr Clarke admitted he gone into seclusion during the election campaign because he opposed his party's views over the euro: "That was my particular problem. I actually don't agree with my party on the euro and on the pound."

Mr Hague will today face a savage onslaught from heavyweight Tory critics over his disastrous election campaign.

Senior figures like Michael Heseltine, Chris Patten and John Major are expected to break a month-long silence to attack him. But even their damaging intervention might not be enough to head off the nightmare scenario of Mr Hague hanging on to his job.

Mr Hague has proved one of the biggest turn-offs to voters in parliamentary history. Poll after poll cited him as a key reason people would not back the Tories.

He broke all records in the unpopularity stakes as supporters of both main parties identified Tony Blair as the best leader.

But there were growing doubts at Westminster last night that anyone else would want the job.

Allies believe Mr Hague, never seen as a quitter, will fight tooth and nail to survive despite the drubbing.

He will come under massive pressure to drop the hard-right policies which brought a second catastrophic defeat in four years.

Grandees like Mr Heseltine and Mr Patten are furious at the decision to dub the election a "referendum on the pound" - a tactic which backfired spectacularly. …