JOHN RENTOUL and
Douglas Hurd last night warned the Conservative Party against being lured into a challenge to John Major's leadership as the blood-letting began over disastrous results which practically wiped the Tories off the map in the local elections in Scotland.
With Mr Major pleading for unity and blaming party divisions for the losses, an analysis by the Independent of the Scottish results pointed to the Conservatives losing as many as 2,000 seats - half of all those they are defending in England and Wales - robbing them of control of their last metropolitan council.
A Labour survey showed many Tories were contesting seats as independents to avoid "the voters' wrath", said Frank Dobson, the party's environment spokesman.
The collapse of Tory support led Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, to become the first Cabinet minister to admit the Tories would lose the next election if they fail to reunite.
Conservative leaders fear the seismic shift could spark demands by senior Tory backbenchers for Mr Major to stand down, rather than face a leadership challenge in the autumn, in spite of Mr Major's warning he would not go without a fight.
The Foreign Secretary last night in his role as party elder statesman called on the Tories not to turn against Mr Major. "Don't let the media lure us into chatter about the leadership. John Major is an admirable Prime Minister. He is more popular than the party. Against these two facts the case for a change collapses," Mr Hurd said in Harrogate.
Mr Blair triumphantly flew to Glasgow and said the Tories were "arrogant" if they believed their problems merely stemmed from image, presentation or their leader.
Mr Major took the unusual step of admitting the results were "very good" for Labour. "People in this country expect Conservatives to be united . . . when it does not happen I think people are naturally concerned about it. I think they have sent a fairly clear message on this occasion," he said.
Within hours, his warning was flatly contradicted by Bill Cash, a leading Eurosceptic Tory MP, and Tony Marlow, one of the whipless Tory MPs.
Calling for a change of policy direction, Mr Cash blamed the leadership for destroying the Conservatives Party's credibility by breaking its promises on tax cuts. "The question of disunity is not the issue with the electorate as a whole. It is a question of credibility and whether we are going to stick to our tax promises," Mr Cash said.
Mr Major was booed by demonstrators protesting at cuts in teachers' jobs when he opened a school in Taunton, Somerset. His tour brought to an end a disastrous week, begun in high hopes with the relaunch of the Tory agenda.
That strategy was blown off course by Tory protests over the NHS, but Virginia Bottomley will today reaffirm her commitment to close hospitals in London. She will tell the Conservative Medical Society: "Fudging the decisions . . . is not something I would look back on with pride. It would be an abdication of responsible stewardship."
The Tories' Scottish parliamentary seats, including those of two Cabinet ministers, Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, and Mr Lang, would have been wiped out in a general election by Thursday's swing. Labour took 20 of the 29 new unitary authorities; only 79 Tory candidates were returned among 1,100 seats.
Jeremy Hanley, the Tory party chairman, mounted a counter attack by targeting Tony Blair's commitment to abandon the European veto on social, environmental and regional policy. "Labour has swopped the red flag for the white flag. Mr Blair would sign away our veto . . . so much for a strong Britain."
It was dismissed by Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, as "a sad and futile attempt to divert attention from their huge defeat".
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