Major loses peer over Europe

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Tory embarrassment at the party's splits over Europe increased last night with the announcement that Lord McAlpine of West Green, an ex-treasurer and deputy chairman of the party, was joining Sir James Goldsmith's independent Referendum Party.

While the defection and its timing, on the eve of this week's Conservative conference at Bournemouth, were clearly designed to cause upset, few will be surprised. The underlying focus of embarrassment within the party is the knowledge that Lord McAlpine is known as someone whose views strongly reflect those of Baroness Thatcher.

Lord McAlpine will talk about his decision on BBC1's Panorama programme tonight. He says that he has already confided in Lady Thatcher about his change of allegiance, and he is not afraid of being branded a traitor.

"People talk in terms of traitors and they blame people for changing their minds," he says. "I mean, for God's sake, it's a mobile thing, politics. I don't need any converting to the point of view of the Referendum Party. I need converting back to the Conservative Party because they don't seem to be very Conservative."

Lord McAlpine tells the programme: "If the Referendum Party was standing, I think I would have to break a habit of a lifetime and probably vote for them." He also says that he is prepared to chair the forthcoming one-day Referendum Party conference in Brighton on 19 October. "They have asked me to chair the conference and I will happily do that," he says. "I am interested in this conference because I think it's a conference that people of all parties can come to. It only has one aim ... it aims to give people a referendum on Europe, to give them a choice."

Sir Teddy Taylor, the prominent Tory backbench critic of government policy on Europe, said last night: "While it is a huge blow to the Conservative Party, it is not surprising bearing in mind the huge upsurge in alarm about our EC membership.

"Lord McAlpine, like so many others, appreciates that there is simply no way that we can reclaim the powers already handed over to Europe and that the only hope would be to have a referendum."

But the pro-European backbencher Peter Luff said: "I am very disappointed that Lord McAlpine should fall for Sir James Goldsmith's blandishments. The Referendum Party is wrong to try and force a referendum. But the real danger is if rich men think they can push their own political agenda by forming a bogus political party."