New blow to Tory unity as leading Euro-sceptic quits

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The Independent Online
Conservative hopes for unity on the eve of their party conference were dealt a blow yesterday by the resignation of James Cran, one of the leading Euro- sceptics, as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

News of Mr Cran's resignation last night prompted a hasty damage limitation exercise from Tory party managers keen to minimise its impact as delegates gathered for the conference at Bournemouth. The reasons for his departure were unclear.

Sources close to the Northern Ireland secretary said last night that Mr Cran had written to Mr Mayhew "three or four weeks ago" with his intention to resign. It had not been made public because Sir Patrick had wanted to meet Mr Cran to discuss his resignation. In his letter Mr Cran said he wanted to spend more time in his constituency. This was interpreted within Sir Patrick's office as a signal that he wanted to be free to pursue his arguments about Europe in the run-up to the election. "He wants the liberty between now and the election to be able to speak his mind on Europe," said a source close to Sir Patrick.

Coming hard on the heels of the defection of Lord McAlpine of West Green, the former Conservative treasurer and deputy chairman, to Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party, Mr Cran's departure is another embarrassment for party managers desperate to portray a united front this week in Bournemouth.

The Conservative high command last night used crackdowns on young offenders, paedophiles, and welfare "scroungers" to lift morale among supporters on the eve of the most difficult conference John Major has faced since he took over the leadership.

The Prime Minister used a speech to Tory agents last night to launch a right-wing agenda, promising an expansion of "workfare" and welfare reform which will save the Government pounds 500m over three years. Party strategists are planning to use right-wing policies in Bournemouth to make it more difficult for Tony Blair to capture wavering Tories, but party officials privately indicated that morale was rock bottom.

There will be no attempt to present a "new philosophy of Majorism" but the Tory strategists are building up the Prime Minister's personality in their campaigning against Mr Blair.

A party source attempted to downplay Mr Cran's resignation last night: "He resigned three weeks ago . . . With the effect of the boundary changes on his seat, he told the whips that he needed more time to devote to holding his constituency. To suggest there is any other reason is plain mischief making."

Tories at Bournemouth, page 5

Leading article, page 19

If Major wins again, page 20