Conservative Party Conference: Quit now, leader tells Euro-rebels

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WILLIAM HAGUE warned the Euro-dissidents in his party yesterday to "get out now" to end speculation about a breakaway pro-European Tory party. Bickering over Europe continued as Conservative MPs prepared to move from their annual conference in Bourne-mouth to a two-day "bonding" session on Monday at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne.

Mr Hague said the conference had settled the dispute, but the leader showed his exasperation with the pro-Euro wing of the party, led by Michael Heseltine, former deputy prime minister, after the defection of one MEP to the Liberal Democrats and the threat of a breakaway by two other MEPs. "If any MPs or MEPs are speculating about leaving the party, then I expect them to go, not stay in it and expect them to leave every five minutes," he said.

MPs privately criticised the leadership's handling of the conference week, forcing Europe on to the agenda at the start. Labour is carrying out focus-group surveys that are likely to show the Tories as a divided force, as inward-looking as Labour after its defeat in 1979.

The party ballot, which showed 84.4 per cent in favour of Mr Hague's policy of ruling out entry to the single currency for the next parliament, was intended to marginalise the pro-European MPs. Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor, kept himself in the mainstream by limiting his attacks.

Mr Heseltine was declared persona non grata for the conference. He did not appear in the conference hall but his presence loomed large on the fringe.

In a sideswipe, Peter Lilley called him a dissident for taking a job from Tony Blair as adviser on trade with China.

Sir Edward Heath, who this week exchanged his first words with Baroness Thatcher in two decades, yesterday renewed his criticism of the "absolutely nonsensical" policy on Europe.

After the conference, the Ikea chairs that Lady Thatcher found so uncomfortable are to be auctioned for party funds. There is expected to be a rush for Lady Thatcher's blue chair but it is unclear how the auctioneers will guarantee it was not the identical seat used by Sir Edward.

Next week's bonding session will focus on uniting the party to defeat electoral reform, which could prove the death-knell for Tory election chances, and fuel Mr Hague's nightmare of a break-up of the old centre- right.

"We will focus on PR as an issue which can unite us, and divide Labour," said a party source. "We've had a row over Europe but now we know the way ahead." The MPs will be briefed on how to manage a fightback after defeat by Haley Barbour, chairman of the US Republican party, and Andrew Robb, director of the Australian centre-right Liberal Party, who was involved in their recent election victory.

Nicholas Soames, who refused to attend last year's bonding session in Eastbourne, is expected to attend next week, though he is refusing to wear a woolly sweater.

Mr Clarke will also be there, but Mr Heseltine and Sir Edward, who was yesterday in Brussels promoting his autobiography, are otherwise engaged.

The MPs will agree tactics for tackling the Government over the Queen's Speech for the next session, which will be dominated by reform of the House of Lords.

The seminar will also focus on delivering a right-wing cutting edge to policies for the public services, highlighted in The Independent yesterday and including tax breaks for people taking out private health insurance and introducing a "market" in education.