Major 'powerless' to stop Tory jousting

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The Independent Online
John Major has privately expressed frustration that signs of a Tory recovery for the election are being harmed by campaigning for the party leadership by members of the Cabinet.

A senior Tory source said Mr Major had told colleagues that he feels powerless to stop their manoeuvring. "What can I do?" he has asked friends.

The disclosure came as Brian Mawhinney, chairman of the Tory Party, hailed three surveys as evidence that the "feelgood factor" had arrived and that wavering Tory voters were returning to the fold.

One survey, by Opinion Research Business for stockbrokers James Capel, said support for the Conservatives was at 79 per cent among Tory voters, the highest since April last year. It coincided with a Barclays Bank report saying that the economy was showing signs of rapid improvement, helped by a rise in consumer spending and a surge in the housing market. Another report, by the investment bank Deutsche Morgan Grenfell, said the latest economic data had forced even the most cynical gloom-mongers to "throw in the towel".

Home-buyers were given a boost last week when the Halifax Building Society said the 5.3 per cent increase in prices in the year to July had been the highest for seven years.

"Thanks to the decisions taken by this Government, the feelgood factor is back and is here to stay," said Dr Mawhinney.

Labour leadership sources shrugged off the Tories' hopes of rescue from defeat at the election. "It's actually 67 per cent of former Tory voters, which is a shift of only 5 per cent. It still means that a third of former Tory voters won't vote Tory again, which is bad news for the Government," said a Blair aide. However, Labour sources privately accept that Labour's big lead cannot survive until polling day, and Tony Blair has repeatedly warned against complacency.

The Prime Minister, currently on holiday with his family at a villa on the French Riviera loaned by Lord Harris, an honorary Tory party treasurer, fears that the open competition between John Redwood, Michael Portillo, and other members of the Cabinet, could undermine Tory chances.

Some Major supporters have tried to halt the competition for the leadership breaking out before the election by suggesting that the vacancy will not arise, and that Mr Major will stay on even if the Tories are defeated.

But the problems of securing a united policy on Europe have continued to dog Mr Major's chances. Euro-sceptics packed their bags for the summer convinced they were going to lose the election, and planning for the leadership contest.

Michael Howard, the Euro-sceptic Home Secretary, is emerging as the front- runner for the right-wing 92 Group. Some senior members believe he has broader appeal than Mr Redwood and is less prone to tactical errors than Mr Portillo, who was widely condemned at last year's party conference for his "SAS" speech.

Mr Portillo, the Defence Secretary, increased the pressure on Mr Major to harden his policy on a single European currency by warning at the weekend that a decision on joining the "first wave" of a single European currency was coming "quite soon".

Although he stuck to the Government's agreed line that monetary union would have to be judged on its merits nearer the time, he gave a clear hint that the "wait and see" policy cannot be sustained. "This is a big decision and it's coming, or certainly the decision as to whether we would join in a first wave is coming, quite soon."