Tories Elect Hague To Revitalize Party

LONDON -- Ex-Welsh Secretary William Hague, 36, won the leadership of Britain's Conservative Party on Thursday, becoming the party's youngest leader in 200 years.

Hague, from the center-right and an opponent of Britain ever joining a single European currency, defeated ex-Treasury chief Kenneth Clarke, the party's leading pro-European, in a third-round ballot on a 90-72 vote. One lawmaker abstained.

The result was announced after a vote among the 164 Conservative lawmakers, trickling in through the day to cast secret ballots in a committee room at the House of Commons.

Hague, the youngest Tory leader since William Pitt in 1783, won with the blessing of ex-prime minister Margaret Thatcher, whom Clarke helped unseat in 1990.

Clarke, 56, had looked like a narrow favorite after making an astonishing deal Wednesday with the third-running candidate, John Redwood, a right-winger who was previously his ideological enemy over Europe.

Redwood backed Clarke in return for promise of a vote according to individual beliefs, not party direction, over whether Britain should join a single European currency.

But many of the 38 lawmakers who supported Redwood in a second ballot Tuesday evidently could not bring themselves to vote for a pro-European.

Hague, who succeeds ex-prime minister John Major as leader of the opposition, faces a daunting task in trying to rebuild the party, traumatized by its landslide defeat by the Labor Party in May 1 elections after 18 years in power.

Major announced then he would stand down.

The scale of the Tory defeat was due partly to splits over closer relations with the EU and right-wing demands to rule out Britain's joining the single currency.

Thatcher did not have a vote in the ballot but remains an influential figure in the party right wing.

Hague, who polled 62 votes to Clarke's 64 in the second ballot, won despite a stumble Monday when he said he would insist the party's top spokesmen rule out joining a single currency for a decade.

That stipulation may eliminate Clarke -- who rates nationally and among grassroots activists as the most popular Conservative -- from the party hierarchy.

A national survey of chairmen of local party branches released Thursday by Tory headquarters showed Clarke with support from 389, compared to 260 for Hague. Some of the party's right wing, which failed to coalesce early behind one of four right-wing or center-right contenders who were in the first ballot June 10, were furious about the Clarke-Redwood pact.

"Perhaps the Conservatives no longer believe there is any possibility of agreement [on the European currency],'' wrote Charles Moore, editor of pro-Conservative Daily Telegraph.

"If so,'' Moore added in a denunciation of the pact, "... the most enduring and successful political party in the history of the world will have moved from zenith to extinction in a single decade.''