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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tory Conference Ponders Reasons for Defeat

BLACKPOOL, England -- Britain's Conservatives turned their annual conference into a mass therapy session Tuesday as they confronted the reasons for their crushing election defeat five months ago.

Rank-and-file activists reserved their loudest applause of the first conference session for new party leader William Hague and his predecessor, former British prime minister John Major, when they blamed their defeat on years of infighting among the party's members of parliament.

Major, whose 6 1/2 years as prime minister were bedeviled by repeated bloodletting over Europe, was greeted with a loud "No" when he suggested that perhaps he was responsible for the May 1 election rout at the hands of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour party that ended 18 years of Conservative rule.

"Reform the party, back William Hague, rediscover the art of working together, fight every seat for every vote -- or fight one another and lose elections," Major, who received a rousing reception.

The theme was taken up by Hague, who is hoping to bind the party's wounds, still raw over Europe, by letting Conservative members of parliament vote according to their conscience if and when the Labour government decides to join Europe's planned single currency.

"I know why we lost. I am sure many of you do too. So let's not mince words. People thought we had lost touch with those we always claimed to represent.

"Our parliamentary party came to be seen as divided, arrogant, selfish and conceited. Our party as a whole was regarded as out of touch and irrelevant. That is the truth of it, and we have to come to terms with it," Hague said.

It was an important speech for Hague, just 36, who knows he must win the affections of his demoralized, cash-strapped party before he can go on to shake up its organization and develop a body of policies that might win it re-election.

He was an unexpected choice as leader. An opinion poll this week said only one in five Britons are satisfied with his performance, and a sizeable minority of Conservatives withheld their endorsement of him in a ballot conducted over the summer.

Although Hague was backed by a margin of four to one, only 180,000 out of 400,000 ballot papers sent to party members were returned.

Hague, who addressed the Conservative conference in the same hall 20 years ago as a precocious 16-year-old, admitted he faced a mammoth task. But he insisted that, by providing a chance for the party to come to terms with its defeat, the conference would prove to be a week when the Conservatives drew a line in the sand.

"The week when we stop apologizing. The week when we get up off our knees and stand tall again. This is the week when the whole world will see that the Conservatives are back in business," Hague said.