Election '97: Knives out in Tory leadership battle

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Contenders for the Conservative leadership race were off the blocks within minutes of the first results coming in last night.

Among the leading contenders was Michael Portillo, the Defence Secretary, but at 2.30am his Enfield seat looked extremely precarious. Stephen Twigg, a former president of the National Union of tudents, seemed on course to take the constituency from him.

While not all the possible contenders were openly disloyal to John Major, several dropped heavy hints that they expected major changes in their party.

Mr Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, said the Conservatives would have a great deal of reflection to do.

The Conservative leadership should not be argued out by the media, he added.

"This is something that requires mature reflection by very senior colleagues.

William Hague, another minister who has been tipped for the Conservative leadership, said he supported John Major and would continue to support him.

"Clearly it appears the division has not helped, but I think the feeling of 'time for a change' that other people have referred to has possibly been difficult to compete with.

"I don't think there is any point in apportioning blame around the party.

"We have to take a period of very calm and cool reflection. That doesn't mean we have a period of recrimination and it doesn't mean we stop being proud of what together we have achieved for this country," he said.

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.

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.

"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."

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, said he believed the domination of the campaign by the issues of Europe and sleaze had damaged his party.

They had dominated large parts of the campaign, he said, to the detriment of issues such as the economiy which would have played better for the Conservatives.

He hit out at members of his own party who had helped to create trouble over Europe.

"I would hope those backbenchers in the next Parliament on the Conservative side behave a little more sensibly than backbenchers on the Conservative side in this Parliament.

"To burst out into recriminations within two hours of the polls closing is not the best way of improving our position," he said.

Defeat was so huge it was being conceded before the first result came in for Sunderland South at 10.45 pm, and Conservative officials were quick to mount a defensive operation to protect John 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 one official.

Senior Tory staff last night tried to keep spirits up by warning that the honeymoon for the new Labour Government would be short-lived. "The Conservative Party over the years has a great track record of picking itself up ... We will be giving the Labour Party no time for a honeymoon and we will be off the starting blocks very quickly to ensure their first few days are as hard as possible," said one aide.