I've had a bellyful

The sun is shining. It's a beautiful day. Inflation is falling. And...
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The Independent Online
After a week of simmering private anger, John Major finally erupted in frustration yesterday. Surrounded by disloyal MPs, intrigues and the open hostility of Lady Thatcher, he declared: "I've had a bellyful."

He contrasted the mid-June weather outside the pavilion in Porthcawl, where he addressed the Welsh party faithful, with the storms raging in the party. "The sun is shining. It's a beautiful day. The political mood is changing. Inflation is falling. The economy is growing. People are beginning to feel better off."

But then he turned to party indiscipline: "There's no time for distractions. We need to go out there, onto the doorsteps, all of us, and put our case." And in an interview for the Western Mail, he was even more blunt: "I am not going to be distracted by noises off on one side or noises off from the other side. I have had a bellyful of that.

He has said the same sort of thing, year after year, at conference after conference. The Labour Party, demonstrating its new speed of response after investing in new computer software for the general election, immediately issued a list of nine similar pleas by Mr Major. They ranged from a call to "pull together" in 1993, to his declaration after last summer's leadership campaign that "the time for division is over", and a recent warning that without unity, his party "will lose the election".

All of his earlier pleas were ignored by Tory factions and no one yesterday expected Mr Major's latest finger-wagging to be any more effective. He has tried and tried again. But this speech ended a week which has been among the worst in recent Tory history for division, rebellion and plot.

Lady Thatcher's metaphorical slap across the face when she funded Bill Cash, the rebel MP, had followed the revelation of links between the Euro- sceptics and Sir James Goldsmith. The connection was exposed after 78 MPs backed a call for a new referendum on Europe in the Commons. On the other side of the Tory divide, two MPs had won a hospital concession by brazenly threatening Mr Major's majority. It has not been a happy few days at No 10.

The immediate future looks little better. Rebels in the Commons are openly contemptuous of party discipline. One of the two MPs involved in the hospital incident, Hugh Dykes, accused the whips of behaving like "hysterical children" and describing the Chief Whip as "pathetic".

The Government has little prospect of getting important or controversial legislation through the Commons. Though the economy is recovering, the Budget is unlikely to be an important moment in that recovery. For many MPs, it is becoming ever harder to see the point of the administration struggling on.

Yet, with almost heroic stubbornness, the Prime Minister remains convinced he can win and determined to tell home truths to his bickering party. Yesterday he stressed that a Labour victory would throw away the economic recovery over which he was presiding. Labour's changes would be "irreversible" - a clear warning to those in the party who believe they can regain power after a period in opposition.

Whether Mr Major believes in his heart that the party is any longer ready to listen is impossible to know. But he has been presiding over what seems like an incurably dysfunctional political family. Not even in its darkest days of civil war in the very early 1980s did the Labour Party contain so many prepared to behave as if they had given up any hopes of winning the general election ahead.

The defeatism shows in every echelon of the party, from the activists who have seen their base on often well-run local councils destroyed by the unpopularity of the Government, to those Cabinet ministers now quietly dressing to the right in a repositioning for the real struggle they see ahead: the one for the soul and leadership of the Tory party which will follow its general election defeat.

But it is in the parliamentary party, above all, that the defeatism is evident. The common stance is that of "every man for himself." MPs who know in their heart that it is electorally suicidal to highlight divisions on Europe week after week, troop into a division lobby against the Government to try to ensure that Sir James Goldsmith does not put up a candidate against them. And Mr Major, his belly full of Tory decay, tries yet again to make them hear.