Get back to work, Hurd tells Tories: Foreign Secretary urges unity in 'Independent' interview

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DOUGLAS HURD, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday predicted that the Conservative Party would not be 'silly' enough to change its leader and called on MPs to fall in behind a manifesto designed to unite Tories in the run-up to the European elections.

In what amounted to an appeal to Conservative activists to stop agonising over the term 'back to basics', the Cabinet's senior statesman said that whether they were called 'basics, fundamentals or common sense' was less important than 'getting on with them'.

Mr Hurd moved to steady a Tory party still reeling from a succession of personal scandals with a stark warning that further backbiting and disunity in its ranks would cause as much long-term damage to Conservatism as had been done to the Labour Party in the past.

Mr Hurd said in an exclusive interview with the Independent: 'As long as we relate what we do to the basic things that people need and want then it doesn't seem to me that what we call it terribly matters. But we've got to stick to the basics.'

The careful balance which Mr Hurd intends to strike as chairman of the team drawing up a manifesto for an open, free trade-based, and non-centralised Europe was threatened yesterday by a call from Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, for the Government to commit itself to holding a referendum before Britain decided whether to join a future single currency. Under the Maastricht opt-out negotiated by Mr Lamont, Britain is committed to putting any decision to join a single currency to Parliament.

He said in a speech to a London conference: 'We have seen how the arguments on Europe and a single currency have not been finalised by the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. The issue divides the country and divides parties.'

But Mr Hurd declared that the manifesto, which will reaffirm the importance of the 'nation state', would restore Tory Party unity.

He added: 'I don't claim that we're going to get every individual on board. But I think the argument about Maastricht was not so much an argument about the kind of Europe we want but whether the treaty was a help or a hindrance to it. I think we can try to move forward from that.' The Tories would fight a 'positive campaign' in contrast to Labour and the Liberal Democrats 'who do have a more centralising approach, do believe for example in the social chapter and are prepared to move more towards majority voting and removal of the veto'.

And in what will be read as a stark warning to Tories - ministers as well as backbenchers - who might be tempted to challenge party policy, he declared: 'People who have got real differences on policy, serious politicians, are entitled to make their view known. If they don't like the collective view of government they can leave government.'

Backbenchers were entitled to express their views on real 'differences of principle' but the damaging phase of 'chattering' had to be 'brought to an end'.

Downing Street went out of its way to repeat that the Prime Minister had no intention of abandoning the 'back to basics' theme - or for that matter the slogan. In Moscow reporters travelling with Mr Major were told they would be wasting their time asking further questions on the subject.

As Hartley Booth, the 47-year-old MP for Finchley, announced he would not be quitting Parliament over his friendship with a female student, Sir Anthony Grant, MP for Cambridgeshire South West, said: 'Politics by slogan are rather silly. You can't govern by them.'

And while Downing Street stressed that the slogan was not about personal sexual morality, Mr Hurd cited the management of economic recovery, with a resultant fall in unemployment, competitiveness, the 'continuing effort against crime' and the nitty gritty of European policy as examples of what the term really meant.

He did not believe the Tories would change their leader before the next general election. 'I think it would be so silly that it won't happen. The shock of what happened in 1990 is still quite strong among active Conservatives and I think the idea of that happening again would horrify them, so it would be crazy.'

He said of Mr Major: 'If you look at the things he's doing, if you look at the things he's trying to do, they command pretty general support and respect.'