The civil war is hereby extended

To the Tories, a delayed election just means more time for internal fighting

There were two reasons why some in the Tory party were dismayed by the postponement of the general election. The first was that they believed the Prime Minister would look callous, uncaring and divisive if he went on 3 May, and that this perception could be exploited to their benefit. The second, however, was that the state of internal party discipline is so shaky that no one would like to guarantee it getting as far as 3 May, let alone 7 June, without some sort of implosion.

In the past month or so, the party has returned to its former levels of internecine loathing, the usual suspects finding it far more satisfying and necessary to fight each other than to fight the Labour Party. The imminent election, which to most sane people should be a suppressant of this sort of behaviour, is in fact fuelling it. A small but significant rump of the already diminished parliamentary party would be quite happy to see the Conservatives win even fewer seats than the 165 they managed four years ago. The catastrophists who take this view would like to see someone such as David Davis, one of John Major's ministers, take over from William Hague. Although Davis is unpopular with many of his colleagues because of his charm-free, opportunist demeanour, others see it as a bonus that he is untainted by any connection with the present regime.

Then there is a slightly larger group that would be happy with only a modest rise in the number of seats - not enough for Hague to claim he had improved the standing of the party, but enough to get into parliament a few more supporters of the so-called modernising tendency whose standard-bearer is Michael Portillo.

This leaves perhaps just two-thirds of the parliamentary party, who take the view traditional at a time such as this: they want their party to win as many seats as possible.

One has had to look only so far as the press in recent weeks to see how the modernisers have been causing mischief. The Times and the Financial Times have provided a ready conduit for stories disobliging the Leader of the Opposition, his supporters and staff. Sources close to Hague suspect the originators of these stories to be friends of Portillo and Francis Maude, though there is no evidence that the two shadow ministers are orchestrating the campaign by their adherents.

There has been much laboured speculation about whether Hague can survive, usually inviting the answer "no". In the most subtle piece of mischief-making, another of the modernisers' enemies, the defence spokesman, Iain Duncan Smith, has been "revealed" to be plotting a leadership coup: which he manifestly is not.

Although some of what is going on in the Tory party today would not be out of place in a nasty South American republic, the more ancient principle of divide and rule appears to be the modernisers' watchword. They are so desperate to secure the advantage for their candidate in the presumed leadership election that they are even beating up Amanda Platell, Hague's press officer. Her relations with Portillo and Maude are non-existent, and have been ever since she succeeded in having sacked from Central Office some acolytes of the two men who had been briefing against Hague. Items have appeared in gossip columns stating as fact Platell's imminent departure from her post - which was news both to her and her employer. Michael Gove, a supposedly pro-Tory columnist on the Times, devoted two pages of its second section to monstering Platell. That it read like a press release against her drafted by the Portillo camp was not coincidental; what was remarkable was that the Times expected to achieve any change in that post as a result of the attack, or that it should be surprised when the paper was subsequently treated with less than the traditional respect by Hague.

None of this will have any impact on the voters, for whom the internal bickerings of a party out of power are of no interest. The effect of it all on the party at the centre, however, is utterly corrosive.

If the election is another debacle, then the anti-Hague camp will get its way: and maybe the stories being pumped out by Portillo's friends about a love-match between him and Kenneth Clarke will come true. If, however, the Tories secure enough seats for Hague to stay in power, there will be no climate of forgive and forget towards those who have been seen to hinder, rather than help, the victory.

Privately, Hague is seething about the disloyalty of some in his party. If he does survive, he will know that the poison will need to be taken out of Central Office, and his party's machine, before any further progress can be made. To an extent, he is to blame, as some of those purged for their disloyalty a year ago have been allowed back into the tent to help in the election. He is not helped by having, in Michael Ancram, a party chairman who has been reluctant to confront obvious misbehaviour among sections of the party's employees - though Ancram is simply following a tradition of ineffectuality and blithering that has characterised both his party and his office for generations.

The sane and rational element in the parliamentary party, which reflects the general, unexcitable, non-intriguing view of the party in the country, knows just how much scope exists for things to get worse. For them, the most horrible prospect is the spectacle of Portillo and Ann Widdecombe slugging it out after the election. That is probably why Hague will be safe; but, in its unregenerate state, the Conservative Party is capable of anything, including ultimate acts of self-indulgence. Those who pay lip-service to the idea of a vibrant democracy should watch all this and shudder.

Simon Heffer is our Conservative Party correspondent