Election '97: Portillo fires starting gun in battle for Tory leadership

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The Independent Online
Michael Portillo fired the starting gun in the Tory leadership race even before the first results were in last night, by stressing the need for the party to reflect on the need to reunite over European policy.

Barely concealing his criticism of John Major's failure to unite the party, Mr Portillo said: "I am sure they could have done better if over the last few years they had been united."

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 Ten.

"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,' said one Tory aide.

Defeat was so huge it was being conceded before the first result came in for Sunderland South at 10.45 pm, and Tory 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 the official.

Senior Conservative staff last night tried to keep up the Tory spirits 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 and moving forward very quickly. We will be giving the Labour Party no time for a honeymoon and we will be offt the starting blcoks very quickly to ensure their first few days are as hard as possible."

The Tory strategists are targeting the first Labour budget by Gordon Brown in July to raise the windfall profits tax on the privatised utilities. There will also be an attempt to rally the Tory ranks for an assault on Tony Blair's handling of the Amsterdam summit.

The posters were still on the walls at Tory Central office, which had been used from the very start of the campaign, but which had failed to capture the imagination of the public: "Yes it hurt. Yest it worked"; and the "demon eyes" poster of a grinning Tony Blair with the slogan "New Labour New Danger".

Brian Mawhinney was being targeted for the blame by some Tory candidates but his staff said the party chairman could not be blamed for the campaign. "There is not much you can do if the public decides it is time for a change. That is what we were up against and it proved unstoppable."