Election '97: Tories at war as polls close

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The Independent Online
The Tories started warring even before the polling stations had closed last night, with leadership candidates jockeying for position to succeed John Major.

Clearly anticipating a Tory defeat, leading Euro-sceptics accused Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, of sabotaging the Conservative election campaign by refusing to allow Mr Major to veto entry into the single European currency.

Across Whitehall, ministerial special advisers were packing in anticipation of being thrown out of their offices by a Labour victory. One official at the Treasury said: "We are spring cleaning over here."

With yesterday's voting marked by a high early turn-out throughout the country during a bright and sunny day, the recent spate of terrorist scares prompted the first appearance of armed police officers at Tony Blair's polling station in Sedgefield, County Durham.

But it was the early moves on the Tory leadership that provided the early indicator of the result. Even before polling opened, at least one Cabinet challenger for the leadership had told broadcasters he was eager to appear over the weekend, with an implicit nudge-and-wink hint that he would be in the running for the succession.

Cabinet contenders had already been beaten to the starting gate by John Redwood, the one man unconstrained by the niceties of waiting for the result. He has already been booked to appear on BBC Radio 4's The World at One programme today, and he is scheduled to star on London Weekend Television's Jonathan Dimbleby programme on Sunday, to "discuss the lessons for the Conservative Party".

According to Labour sources, the biggest lesson of the campaign was the way in which the party's machine "ran Central Office ragged" at every turn, in spite of the fact that they had received a leaked copy of Labour's "war book" battle plans.

One senior Labour source said he suspected that the Tories had under-played their strongest card - the economy - because they were wary of promoting Kenneth Clarke, for fear of provoking a Euro- sceptic backlash.

The Tory pro-Europeans are ready to launch a fight-back today with Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary, poised to go the rounds of the broadcasting studios to issue a point-by-point answer to the charges from the Euro- sceptics.

"The Euro-sceptics are being complete idiots if they think Europe was the issue which cost us the election," said a senior Cabinet source. "There were over 200 candidates who fought the election on a commitment to rule out the single currency. It was made pretty clear to anyone wanting to cast their vote what the nature of the Tory party would be."

But Lord Tebbit, the former chairman of the party, was the first openly to put the boot into Mr Major for refusing to fight on a Euro-sceptic ticket by ruling out a single currency. "Labour would never have had a dog's chance if he had ruled out the single currency," he wrote in the Sun.

With strong Whitehall rumours circulating about Michael Portillo's putative leadership campaign, Ladbrokes yesterday reported heavy betting on Mr Portillo and Mr Heseltine for the succession. They are joint 5-2 favourites.

But early contenders could yet be disappointed if Mr Major spurns the advice of close friends and decides that he has a duty to see his party through to a mature and considered leadership battle in July, or even the autumn. Mr Major's friends argue that, having been betrayed by party feuding, he should leave the warring factions to do their worst, and announce his intention to stand down at the earliest opportunity.

Other, calmer voices say - rightly - that if he did that, he would be rewarding the very people who have made his life so difficult as Prime Minister for the past six years.

A precipitate resignation and leadership contest would probably leave the party in the hands of the right-wing Euro-sceptics and, possibly, trigger a mass defection by pro-European MPs. Delay would help to calm the excitement. It would give new MPs time to settle down, think about the future of the party, and mobilise support for a contender who could hold the party together. That could even revive the possibility of a joint Heseltine-Portillo ticket.

With brisk polling reported from around the country, Mr Major said after he had voted in his Huntingdon constituency that the 30-per-cent local turn-out was "way above what we'd normally expect." He said it was "a very good omen for democracy when you've got weather like this, on polling day and what looks like a high turn-out."