Defection heightens Tory divisions

Nicholson clash: Portillo mocks claims of a 'lurch to the right' as moderates attack growing 'xenophobia'
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Political Correspondent

Emma Nicholson's defection to the Liberal Democrats sparked a furious row yesterday over her claim that the Conservative party had "lurched to the right", as a right-wing Cabinet minister mocked the idea and Tory moderates seized their moment to launch a counter-attack.

Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Defence, said the claim of a rightward tilt was "completely incredible". He told BBC Radio's Today programme: "There were many people who could object to Mrs Thatcher because they thought she was strident or ideological, who could not possibly have those objections to Mr Major who is so palpably moderate and all-embracing in the way he wishes to run the party."

But Peter Temple-Morris, the One Nation Tory MP for Leominster, defended Miss Nicholson, a former close associate in his centrist Macleod Group. He listed the grievances of the left-wing of the Tory party and identified them with Mr Portillo. "We are talking about an increasingly nationalistic and xenophobic tendency in speeches, of which Michael Portillo's conference one would be a very good example," Mr Temple-Morris said.

The "worrying tilt to the right" was not confined to Europe, Mr Temple- Morris went on, it covered "a whole range" of domestic issues. "The whole of the Home Office front is an obvious candidate, centralisation, quangos, local government finance, one could go on - there is unfortunately a tilt here which will take more than rhetoric to rectify," he told the BBC's The World At One.

Mr Portillo's view, supported yesterday by John Redwood, Mr Major's leadership challenger, reflects the Tory right's belief that the Prime Minister has failed to carry on the torch of true Thatcherite principles.

Certainly Mr Major adopted a number of policies sharply at odds with those of his predecessor soon after becoming Prime Minister in 1990. But after the reduced Tory majority in the 1992 election, and especially since the bruising parliamentary battle to get the Maastricht treaty ratified, the One Nation wing of the Tory party has become increasingly restless.

On the publication of the second volume of her memoirs in 1995, Baroness Thatcher said she knew he would take a slightly more emollient line on Europe, "but I was not prepared for the speed with which the position I adopted would be reversed". But the new stance saw events move "swiftly, and as far as I was concerned, in the wrong direction".

She also said Britain was "moving rapidly in the wrong direction" in social affairs and law and order. "The family is clearly in some sort of crisis ... crime has risen," she said.

Speaking to BBC Radio from the Arabian Gulf, Mr Portillo said yesterday: "It is very silly to say that the party has tilted to the right - that is completely incredible. I think the party is probably much the same. We have a broad breadth of opinion within the party."

Mr Redwood said the Tory party had clearly not moved to the right on the issue of Europe: "Since 1990 [when Mr Major became Prime Minister] more powers have been taken by or transferred to the European institutions, moving in exactly the kind of direction that Sir Edward Heath and Emma Nicholson seem to want us to go."

And he added: "When the new Cabinet was chosen last summer, all the pundits agreed it was the most left-wing Cabinet a Conservative prime minister had chosen in long memory."

One Nation Tories were keen yesterday to point out that, while the right wing had "nowhere else to go", the two recent defections had demonstrated the power that centrist Conservative MPs now had over Mr Major.