Blackpool braced for Thatcher: Tory conference floor remains free of dissent while leaks from memoirs create a storm of speculation

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PLANS to deploy Baroness Thatcher to rebuild Tory party unity threatened to fall apart last night after she failed comprehensively to deny criticisms of John Major leaked from her forthcoming memoirs.

A carefully constructed show of Thatcherite support for him was suddenly undermined by claims in the Daily Mirror that the former prime minister, who arrives in Blackpool today, had questioned her successor's abilities.

In a statement issued after a day of intense speculation at Blackpool, Lady Thatcher unequivocally pledged her continued support for Mr Major as Prime Minister. But the formulation of her response failed to dispel fears in the leadership that the premature detonation of some of the most controversial elements in the book was based on an at least partly accurate leak.

It said that 'in the light of today's media coverage, Lady Thatcher would like to confirm that she supported and voted for John Major as Leader of the Conservative Party and therefore as Prime Minister in November 1990; that she would do the same thing today; that she continues to support John Major as Leader of the Party and as Prime Minister.'

In the only amplification, a source in close contact with Lady Thatcher said explicitly that it was untrue, as the Daily Mirror had claimed yesterday, that she thinks 'John Major is small minded, politically nave and an intellectual lightweight'.

A senior party figure who has read the book said a section of it damned Mr Major 'with faint praise'. But the Daily Mirror claims she says Mr Major was unable to tackle difficult issues as Chancellor, was beaten by platitudes and was not at ease with big ideas. The source was unable to shed any light on that passage and had not read the book. Lady Thatcher, who had been determined no extract should appear until after the conference, was said to be furious about the Daily Mirror report.

The Sunday Times, which was due to open serialisation of the book this weekend, failed yesterday to secure an injunction preventing further publication by the Daily Mirror. After a 50-minute private hearing in the High Court, Martin Cruddace, a Mirror Group lawyer, said the judge had refused the application because he was satisfied that the material was 'in the public interest'. He said the judge had also been impressed by the fact that senior Tory officials had dismissed the revelations as fiction.

According to today's issue of the Daily Mirror, Lady Thatcher says at one point in the book that it seems 'strange' to her that Mr Major 'did not feel more at home tackling the issues he faced at the Treasury'. The newspaper also quotes her as saying of Mr Major when he was Chancellor: 'Intellectually he drifted with the tide.'

The intense off-stage speculation about Lady Thatcher's memoirs came after a day in which there had been virtually no dissent on the conference floor; representatives had repeatedly and enthusiastically applauded appeals for unity from the platform.

And in stark contrast to last year, when the bitter dispute over Europe erupted on to the conference floor, representatives applauded with warmth and near unanimity a typically magisterial speech by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, appealing for unity and warning the party not to use foreign policy as a vehicle for factionalism. Mr Hurd said after the debate he was satisfied that he could achieve '95 per cent support' for a manifesto for the European elections.

Both Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, and John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, sought to reinforce the coalition between mainstream supporters and the right by emphasising the continuity between the two Tory administrations since 1979. The theme was set by Sir Norman, who appealed in his opening address for the party to unite behind Mr Major and added: 'For years I was called a Thatcherite. Now I am called a Majorite. And let me say I wear both these labels with pride.'

But the signs last night were that the accord between the Thatcherites and the leadership could wear thin by tomorrow, when Lady Thatcher is due to appear on the platform in a show of support for the Prime Minister during the key economic debate. At a packed fringe meeting of anti-Maastricht Tories, Lord Tebbit poured scorn on Mr Major's claim to be the leading Euro- sceptic. 'How much easier it would have been if he had worn the sceptics' clothes at Maastricht,' he said. But he warned his audience against wishing defeat at the election to change the leadership: 'Because you feel out of step with what has happened in the last year, do not leave the Tory party.'

Speculation over the book could also upset the delicately poised strategy among several figures on the right who are switching hostility from Mr Major to Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, and still likeliest candidate to succeed Mr Major, in the hope of promoting Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, as a future leadership candidate.

A ministerial right-winger said one purpose of this week had been to 'put Ken Clarke back in his box'. Mr Clarke will not give hints of his Budget strategy but is widely expected by ministers to sanction some further increases in indirect taxes to curb borrowing, provoking further hostility from right wingers such as Norman Lamont, his predecessor.

Conference reports, page 8

Andrew Marr, page 8

Matthew Symonds, page 24

Bryan Appleyard, page 25

(Photograph omitted)