Republicans were in disarray last night after a leading conservative newspaper called on Dennis Hastert, the Speaker, to resign, and an open rift developed between Mr Hastert and his top deputy, John Boehner, the majority leader in the House of Representatives.

Republicans were in disarray last night after a leading conservative newspaper called on Dennis Hastert, the Speaker, to resign, and an open rift developed between Mr Hastert and his top deputy, John Boehner, the majority leader in the House of Representatives.

The developments were further evidence that the scandal over a possible cover-up of the sexually explicit e-mail advances of the former Republican congressman Mark Foley to teenage House pages is turning into a pre-electoral debacle for the party.

Five days after details of the lurid e-mails were first revealed, the focus of the scandal has shifted from Mr Foley ­ now in rehab for alleged alcoholism ­ to the Speaker himself, the third-ranking figure in the US constitutional structure.

The questions are essentially two: why Mr Hastert did not take more vigorous action when word first reached him about Mr Foley’s correspondence with the male pages late last year ­ and whether he and his colleagues tried to keep the potentially explosive affair quiet, at least until after November’s mid-term elections.

But even the more innocent explanation has outraged not just Democrats, who yesterday were rushing out new campaign ads for some of the most closely contested races ­ Republicans too, especially the social conservatives who are the party’s most reliable supporters