Major battles to calm Tory party turmoil

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The Independent Online
COLIN BROWN Chief Political Correspondent

John Major yesterday tried to hold his party together with a warning to the warring factions that they would face certain defeat at an election unless they united behind his leadership.

Clearly fearing more defections which could force him into an early general election this year, he praised the two Tory deserters, Emma Nicholson and Alan Howarth, as "nice people".

Flatly contradicting the challenges made to the defecting MPs by the party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, to resign their seats and fight by-elections, Mr Major said they were within their rights not to do so. "They're both nice people, they've both got decent instincts and I like both of them," Mr Major said on BBC television's Breakfast with Frost.

In his efforts to unite both the right and left wings of his party, he also praised the Euro-sceptic Michael Portillo, whose attack on Euro-federalists in the party plunged Conservatives into more turmoil.

"If the Conservative Party does not realise the opportunities that lie ahead of it and throw it away by disputes within itself, then it will lose the election," Mr Major said. He was backed by the former minister Michael Mates, who said the splits could be "suicidal".

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, who is in Singapore, will today seek to deepen his party's appeal to wavering One Nation Tories by committing Labour to improvements in the welfare state to give the underprivileged a stake in the economy. He will tell Singapore businessmen that helping more people to take work will cut crime and improve cohesion in society.

Mr Major's olive branch to the Tory left is certain to turn the stomachs of some on the radical right of his party, who fear he is becoming a hostage to the left's threats.

The turmoil continued as Peter Thurnham, the MP for Bolton North East, threatened to stand as an independent Conservative at the next election in the Lake District seat being contested by Mr Major's former "spin doctor", Tim Collins. Another One Nation Tory MP, Andrew Rowe, denied that he was ready to desert the Conservatives.

Moving the Tories off the defensive and on to their own agenda, Mr Major announced the introduction of a contract between schools and parents - an initiative that led to a charge of stealing Labour's clothes by David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman.

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, will unveil the details today with plans to allow schools to increase the selection of their pupils from 10 per cent to 15 per cent; the direct payment of funds to more schools; and a reduction in bureaucracy. In a sop to the right, Mr Major confirmed that privatisation of the Royal Mail - halted in the face of a backbench rebellion by One Nation Tories - would be put back on the agenda, as a possible item for the Tory election manifesto.

The Prime Minister also urged the IRA to stop the wave of killings and beatings threatening the Northern Ireland peace process. He said Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, could stop the killings.

Mr Major used the interview to place the Tory party firmly on the centre- right of British politics. He said Peter Temple-Morris, a leading member of the One Nation Tories, and Mr Portillo both had a place in the "broad church" of the party. "It would be weaker if the Conservative Party did not have both of those wings of its opinion available for debate and I'm determined that we keep both wings," he said.

His determination to hold his party together will strengthen the view on the left of the party that they can use the Prime Minister's slender majority to reverse what they believe has been a right-wing lurch. His interview could lead to more pressure for a change of direction. He appeared relaxed and insisted: "We've weathered the storm." But he also raised in passing the leadership question that still haunts the party. The election was there to be won, he said. "I shall be there to win it."

Mr Blair - attacked by Mr Major for standing on an "empty box" of policy - described the Prime Minister as "pathetic" and said the Conservatives were spent as a "serious political governing force".

Leading article, page 12