Party faithful resolve to calm stormy waters

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The Independent Online


Arriving on the conference platform to thunderous applause yesterday, Margaret Thatcher could take satisfaction on two counts: she still enjoys the affections of the party faithful, and they are clamouring with increased confidence for a return to her brand of hard-edged Conservatism.

But to the relief of party managers there has been little of the bitter in-fighting that has characterised the last two Tory conferences. Differences are being suppressed in the long run-up to the election.

Europe remains the most divisive issue with the sceptics arguing against integration at numerous fringe meetings. However, one seasoned observer, Michael Dobbs, a former deputy chairman, said yesterday: "We are now talking about nuances rather than open warfare."

John Redwood summed up the right's demands as Budget tax cuts for homeowners and families, more choice in public services, and a declaration not to join a single currency. Mr Redwood said the party had heard "encouraging words" from ministers on lower taxes, better services and standing up for Britain's interests abroad. "We now need action."

The Thatcherite ex-Secretary of State for Wales has proposed a pounds 5bn cut in public spending. Contrasting this to Government plans for a 3 per cent increase next year, he asked: "How many companies and families will enjoy that? Surely any large organisation could get by with a little less."

Edward Leigh, a former minister sacked by Mr Major, told a meeting organised by the Freedom Association that the party should stop "wallowing in self- doubt" and return to policies that took power out of the hands of the state.

Confirmation for the sceptics that they have won the argument on Europe came with the return to the platform of Lord Tebbit and a handshake from the Prime Minister. Two years ago, the former party chairman shook the conference with a fierce anti-European Union speech from the floor.

"Don't rock the boat when it is turning to a more sensible course," Lord Tebbit told a meeting of the Conservative Way Forward group. Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, reaffirmed his own Euro-scepticism from the shared platform but resisted demands for a more right-wing policy on welfare.

From the left of the party, Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, delivered a coded rebuke to the radical right. "Revolutionary change disorients people. They become frightened by the unfamiliarity of the landscape and become easy prey for the peddlers of fraudulent certainties." Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, added: "Slightly undue attention is paid to the noisier elements."