Election '97: Fighting starts for the Tory throne

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Contenders for the Conservative leadership race were off the blocks within minutes of the first results coming in last night. Michael Portillo, Stephen Dorrell, Michael Heseltine and and Malcolm Rifkind all headed for the nearest television cameras. While not all were openly disloyal to John Major, Mr Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, said his party would have done better if it had been united.

Barely concealing his criticism of Mr Major's failure to succeed on that score, he said: "I am sure they could have done better if over the last few years they had been united. I think what the party needs to reflect upon is that it has done itself no good by showing its divisions."

Pressed on the Tory splits over Europe during the campaign, he added: "I think it takes many people to make a division. The important thing is that parties do better when they are not divided and that's something the party needs to reflect upon. I think there is a happy medium between the discipline required to keep a party looking credible and the Maoist imposition of control of thought and deed."

Mr Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, said the Tories would have a great deal of reflection to do if they were defeated. The Tory leadership should not be argued out by the media, he added.

"This is something that requires mature reflection by very senior colleagues. If the polls are right and we have actually lost, then there will have to be a lot of questions asked and answers to give," he said.

Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, told Sky News he had not given up hope of a Tory victory. "I simply remind you that in 1987 and 1992, at both of those elections, the exit polls predicted Labour majorities and when the count was done we had Conservative governments on both occasions."

When asked why the Tory party had fared badly with the early results, Mr Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, admitted: "There has been a problem within the party. Each time I am told I am going I don't. It is early days yet. Let us wait before we start speculating."

Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, in his Cambridgeshire constituency, looked shell-shocked but his senior staff clearly had known that the writing was on the wall.

There were no tears at Tory Central Office, when the realisation of the enormity of the defeat began to sink in. Tory spin doctors were quickly at work in the rooms where the campaign had been waged trying to limit the damage to party morale in the country.

One said: 'We have been in government for 18 years and the people have been bored with us for a very long time. In many ways, we were extremely lucky to win in 1992. People didn't want a Welshman like Neil Kinnock in Number 10."

Another aide said: "The Conservative Party has grown up and we are prepared to take the rough with the smooth. The first thing we will do is get back in business as quickly as possible."

Defeat was so huge it was being conceded before the first result came in for Sunderland South at 10.45pm, and Tory officials were quick to mount a defensive operation to protect Mr Major from blame.

"The Prime Minister has fought a very tough campaign. I don't think anyone could dispute his courage and the way he has put the issues clearly and plainly," said the official.

Senior Conservative staff tried to keep up the Tory spirits by warning that the honeymoon for the new Labour government would be short-lived.