LONDON -- Britain's Conservative Party named its youngest leader in more than 200 years -- and also turned to the right -- when it selected 36-year-old William Hague to succeed John Major as party leader yesterday.
Hague now faces the formidable challenge of rebuilding the Tories, whose 18 1/2 -year reign ended in a May 1 landslide that brought to power the Labor Party and Prime Minister Tony Blair, 43.
"People are sick and tired of this party behaving like a school debating society," said Hague, the youngest Tory leader since 24-year-old William Pitt the Younger in 1783.
Hague won the leadership on a third ballot of Conservative members of the House of Commons. He received 92 votes to 70 for Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor of the exchequer.
Clarke led in two earlier ballots in the past two weeks as the field was narrowed from five candidates. He appeared to be on his way to victory after picking up support from defeated challenger John Redwood. But the marriage of convenience between the left-wing Clarke and the right-wing Redwood apparently turned off the Tory establishment.
Hague allied himself with right-wing Tories who oppose closer political and economic ties between Britain and the other members of the European Union.
He won the endorsement of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who said it was "a good day" after the election results were revealed.
"I am going to bring the party together," Hague said. "I am going to take it back on the road to unity, to confidence and back to power, and the whole Conservative Party is now going to work together to achieve that objective."
Clarke declined an invitation to join Hague's shadow Cabinet but said: "I am sure William is going to be one of the successful prime ministers of this century and is going to get us back on course for Conservative government."
A more likely prospect, though, is that Hague and the Conservatives will be in opposition for years, perhaps a decade or more. Labor doesn't have to call an election until 2002. After Hague's win, bookmaker William Hill lengthened the odds against a Tory election victory from 5-to-4 to 6-to-4.
Hague seemingly has been groomed for the top job for decades. He was reading parliamentary reports at age 15 and addressing the Conservative Party conference at 16. By age 27, he was elected to Parliament. And two years ago, he became Britain's youngest Cabinet member in 50 years when he was named Welsh secretary.
Despite his youth, Hague is regarded by some as a bit of a young fogey. He's balding, and his speeches are often stiff and formal.
There are doubts about his ability to stand up to Blair in the weekly Prime Minister's Question Time.
Hague's political views are murky. Some have dubbed him "Hague the Vague."
"By turning their back on Kenneth Clarke, the Conservative Party have turned their back on the one person who could drag them back to moderation, common sense and one-nation values," said Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Labor's Margaret Beckett, president of the Board of Trade, said: "There are two Tory parties, and Mr. Hague doesn't know which one he's in."
Pub Date: 6/20/97