Election 2001: Winners & Losers - Hague's History; Knives Are out after Poll Disaster MICHAEL PORTILLO ON WILLIAM HAGUE'S FUTURE I Hope That Whatever Happens He Continues as Leader ANN WIDDECOMBE MINUTES BEFORE THE EXIT POLLS We Can Win and We Will Soon Know in a Few Hours Time ''
Byline: JAMES HARDY and OONAGH BLACKMAN
WILLIAM HAGUE stared into the political abyss last night as the plot to oust him as leader began in earnest.
Minutes after the first exit polls confirmed another Labour victory, 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."
But 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."
The reality of a second election defeat was confirmed early on as the BBC and ITN polls showed Labour heading for another landslide.
Mr Hague will today face a savage onslaught from heavyweight Tory critics over his disastrous campaign.
Senior figures like Michael Heseltine, Chris Patten and John Major are expected to break a month long silence to attack the Tory leader.
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 punters 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 election 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.
But other moderates have been uneasy at the attempt to exploit the asylum issue and the negative tactics used to attack Labour.
They believe the party failed to exploit Labour weaknesses and widespread unrest at the slow pace of change under Mr Blair.
Before last night's results Mr Hague was thought unlikely to resign voluntarily unless the number of Tory MPs dropped.
Failure to improve on their 162 seats would be a humiliation after four years of Labour.
His chances of staying without provoking a challenge were believed to hang on the inroads made into Tony Blair's 179 seat majority.
Mr Portillo, who has loudly protested his loyalty, will face a tough decision in the days ahead.
Friends were questioning his desire to lead a rump right-wing Conservative party into a third election defeat - even if he could persuade Tory MPs to back him. …