Conservative Euro-sceptics launched a new attack on Central Office which, they said, was seeking to blame opponents of the Maastricht Treaty for the by-election defeat at Christchurch. The defeat was described as a 'disaster' by Lord Tebbit, the former party chairman.
Tory anxieties were sharply increased yesterday by the first Sunday Times/MORI poll to show them in third place since the Alliance's peak in 1982. It put Labour on 41 per cent, Liberal Democrats on 28 and the Tories on 27.
And the Commons rebels threatened a continuing campaign of guerrilla warfare over Europe, including measures which could block an agreed increase in British funds for Brussels. Their prospects of success in stopping the British share of the pounds 13.4bn Europe-wide rise in EC contributions will depend on whether Labour opposes the legislation, due in the autumn. The Opposition is expected to explore whether it can use the Bill as leverage to secure British participation in the Social Chapter.
Bill Cash, MP for Stafford and a leading Euro-rebel, said the 'spin doctoring' by Sir Norman and his deputy chairman, Gerry Malone must stop. 'They are blaming us for the Conservative defeat in Christchurch. It's laughable.' He added: 'if an increase of own resources (to Brussels) is going to happen there clearly will be resistance to it'.
One leading Euro-sceptic linked the issue of Britain's EC contribution to planned autumn spending cuts. He added: 'There is going to be trouble if we are closing hospitals in order to send more money to Brussels.'
The comments follow an interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme in which Mr Malone blamed the by-election defeat on people exercising a 'feeling of revenge for the recession' and added: 'I don't find that traditional Tory supporters appreciate the disunity in the party.' Mr Malone was echoing comments made earlier by Sir Norman, Mr Cash said.
But one senior party source hit back yesterday, saying: 'Critics of Sir Norman are using him as a lightning conductor for the Prime Minister. If they removed him they would be firing at the PM.'
Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, is expected to use media interviews scheduled for today to respond to a devastating critique of the Government in yesterday's Daily Mail. Lord Tebbit compared the Major government with Edward Heath's and said that voters may have deserted in Christchurch because they had difficulty 'in recognising the administration as Conservative'. He added: 'Labour's Tony Blair is tough on crime. John Major secures the release of convicted drug smugglers.' He added that Mr Major had time to rescue his government 'but only if he acknowledges what has gone wrong'.
Later Mr Malone responded: 'Lord Tebbit is Lord Tebbit. I can't go along with what he is saying. It is a slightly maverick opinion.'
Canvasser's confessions, page 3
Inside Story, page 15