John Major yesterday bluntly reasserted his belief in the very "One Nation" Toryism that Baroness Thatcher had derided in her controversial lecture and declared: "I will not be pushed off what I believe to be right."
In a determined effort to quell party anger in the aftermath of Lady Thatcher's lengthy right-wing critique of Tory "problems", the Prime Minister said: "We have been a One Nation Conservative Party since the beginning of time and we are now ... how can one possibly have a two-nation party of any sort?"
Mr Major's robust first public reaction to the lecture in which Lady Thatcher suggested that Conservatives had not lived up to middle-class expectations, saw him declare in his Huntingdon constituency that his administration had delivered a "platform of prosperity" and added: "I do not intend to be pushed off it."
As MPs on either side of the Tories' ideological fault-line queued up to defend or attack Lady Thatcher's Thursday lecture in a fresh outbreak of public squabbling, Mr Major refrained from direct personal criticism of his predecessor. As a "very important part of the Conservative Party," she had "input" into party policy, the Prime Minister said.
But Lord Howe - her one-time ally, Chancellor, and Foreign Secretary - was withering about her remark that "One Nation" Tories were more like "No Nation" Tories because of their espousal of European "federalism". It had been a "glib phrase and an expensive one", he said. "I fear it is her latter-day obsession with that question [Europe] that risks doing so much damage to her own reputation and even in the last resort to the achievements of the Government, in which we all worked together."
In contrast to the official Tory line, publicly advanced by Mr Major yesterday, that Lady Thatcher's lecture had been misconstrued and was essentially an attack on Labour, it was freely acknowledged in his circle that he had been dismayed by content regarded as "unhelpful."
Ray Whitney, chairman of the party's Positive European Group, said Lady Thatcher'sspeech had been "sad" and that she looked "old and ill" on television, while Julian Critchley, the outgoing MP for Aldershot, suggested: "Lady Thatcher ought really to retire and open a tea shop in Bury St Edmunds."
Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, and one of the four right-wingers singled out for praise, said media coverage of the speech had concentrated on highlighting divisions, while largely ignoring attacks on Labour.
Yet even on the most generous count, Lady Thatcher's attack on Labour occupies no more than two of the nine closely typed pages in her lecture text - about half the length of a section entitled "Rethinking Conservative Policy" and about the same length as one headed "What Has Gone Wrong?"
The left of centre Tory Reform Group turned the tables on Lady Thatcher by digging up a quotation from a 1986 speech, in which she said: "We must learn again to be One Nation, or one day we shall be No Nation."
Meanwhile, Michael Heseltine acknowledged in a Meridian TV interview that the Tories might not win an election if it was called today, but said of Lady Thatcher: "She's entitled to make a speech, she's been prime minister, they all make speeches."
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