THE Tory Party was last night facing the prospect of another prolonged bout of bitter in-fighting after the shock decision of William Hague to quit in the wake of his crushing election defeat.

As Labour celebrated winning a majority of more than 160, the leading contenders to succeed Mr Hague were yesterday keeping their powder dry, with no one breaking cover to throw a hat into the ring.

However, the post-mortems and the recriminations were quick to start with senior figures on the party's pro-European left condemning the campaign's focus on saving the pound to the exclusion of issues like public services.

The most scathing comments came from former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine who said the party had been painted into an extremist position presenting the image of a "right-wing, xenophobic country talking to itself in a very introspective way".

He warned that unless the party was able to reach an accord over Europe and returned to the political centre ground, it risked repeating the errors of Labour which kept it out of power for 18 years.

"It's no use looking at an elderly and diminishing number of people and think they hold the key to Number 10 because they don't," he said.

Pro-European ex-minister Ian Taylor said the party risked being "marooned on the edges of the national debate", while former home secretary and European commissioner Lord Brittan added: "The Eurosceptic card was played for all it was worth in this election. It was very easily trumped."

Mr Heseltine said the party must swallow its Euroscepticism and back ex-chancellor Kenneth Clarke if it wanted to return to power.

"There is only one person who has the commanding stature to appeal to the country at large and that is Ken Clarke," he said.

Mr Clarke refused to be drawn yesterday over his intentions, saying that he intended to spend the weekend in his Nottinghamshire constituency "reflecting" on what happened.

On election night,however, he indicated that he thought the Tory Party had become too Eurosceptic to choose him as its leader.

"I am a pro-European which, I think, would make the Conservative Party unlikely to turn to me," he said.

Instead it appeared likely the battle for the succession would become a contest between "social liberals" such as Michael Portillo and Francis Maude, and right-wingers Ann Widdecombe and Iain Duncan Smith.

There was speculation at Westminster that Mr Clarke could emerge as kingmaker, if he could strike a deal with Mr Portillo over Europe and the single currency.

Mr Portillo was last night reported to have left the country on holiday, while the other likely candidates were giving little away about their intentions.

Mr Maude, who may run if Mr Portillo does not, called for a pause for reflection.

"I believe that the party would welcome restraint by our senior members," he said.

Miss Widdecombe said: "I do not think this is the time to be speculating on the succession, that will come in due course."

Mr Hague's 7.40am announcement that he was standing down appears to have caught many of his senior colleagues by surprise.

However, party chairman Michael Ancram later disclosed that Mr Hague had decided "some time ago" that he would quit if the election result did not show a "significant improvement" in the party's position.

Mr Hague told stunned party workers outside Conservative Central Office: "I believe it is vital the party be given the chance to choose a leader who can build on my work, but also take new initiatives and hopefully command a larger personal following in the country."

He hoped his successor would be in place in time to prepare for the party's annual conference in October.

The news was greeted with dismay in the Tory leader's Richmond constituency. Oliver Beales, chairman of Richmond Conservative Club, said: "I'm very saddened and shocked that William has gone, and I'm sure nearly everybody will say the same,

"He is the best leader we have had for a long time and he will go down as one of the best leaders who never became Prime Minister."