Conservative Party Conference: Sceptics prevail in bitter debate

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The Independent Online
SIR EDWARD Heath yesterday criticised William Hague for failing to stop abuse being heaped on pro-European Conservatives after a bitter debate on Europe showed the Euro-sceptic wing of the party firmly in charge.

Sir Edward was attacked as one of "Yesterday's Men" and accused to his face of misleading the British people when he took Britain into Europe.

The former prime minister later turned on Mr Hague. In his first open criticism of the Tory leader he accused him of failing to "stop dropping this abuse - it is beneath himself.

"The leader's job is to reach as much agreement as he can with the members in the House and in the country, and not say `Do this or else'. It's very sad."

He had sat silently by the side of the platform with Baroness Thatcher in an attempt by the leadership to show unity. But it backfired as grassroots activists and Tory candidates for the European parliament paraded their attacks on European Union and former cabinet ministers, including Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine.

Sir Edward sat behind Lady Thatcher. "He would not have let her sit behind him - look what happened last time," said a friend.

Michael Howard, the shadow Foreign Secretary, warned against "Stalinist" suppression of the pro-Euro dissidents, but Stephen Dorrell, a former cabinet colleague, was hissed when he mentioned the name of the Tory European commissioner, Sir Leon Brittan.

One senior Tory aide said: "They have gone mad. Dorrell was made to look like a member of the lunatic fringe. The centre of gravity of the party has changed."

Former cabinet ministers were furious with the organisers for prolonging the party's divisions over Europe by holding the debate in the middle of the conference instead of at the start, to get the ballot result out of the way and focus on the economy.

Mr Dorrell, who resigned from Mr Hague's Shadow Cabinet to oppose the policy on the single currency, faced shouts of "shame" when he said he had voted "no" in the party ballot to rule out a single currency for the lifetime of the next Parliament.

The angry tone of the debate - as heated as the "hanging" debates at Tory conferences in the mid-1980s - was set by the first speaker from the floor. Roger Helmer, a Euro-candidate for the East Midlands, compared the fight against the euro to the Second World War battle against German invasion.

"We may wish we fought it on the beaches and on the landing grounds but it will be too late because we shall already have surrendered," he said to loud cheers.

He also accused John Major, the former prime minister, of misleading Britain over the loss of sovereignty over joining the euro.

Theresa Villiers, a Euro-candidate from London, said many dissidents had long, distinguished records "but with the greatest respect to them, they are Yesterday's Men."

Francis Hoar, a student, said Sir Edward "chose to forget" to inform the British people of the consequences of joining the European Union.

There were more loud cheers when Roger Ison, chairman of London South and East Surrey Conservatives, called on Mr Hague to "bring his MEPs to heel and put a stop to the nonsense of issuing press releases and letters to the newspapers with direct attacks on the Shadow Cabinet".

Winding up, Mr Howard warned: "We must never become a single issue party ... Our party must never reflect only one tradition. I hope we shall never see the Stalinist control that Mr Blair has had to inflict on New Labour."

But he insisted that Tory Euro-scepticism was in tune with the British people.