Thatcher and Tebbit add to Tory troubles: Gummer appeals for unity as Government faces damaging debate in the Lords over Maastricht

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treaty from Baroness Thatcher and Lord Tebbit, the Conservative Party was urged yesterday 'to stop listening to those few mavericks who try to tear us apart'.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, told BBC 1's On the Record that party workers in his Suffolk constituency had said that the party had to stand together and ignore the dissidents.

That rallying call could be reinforced when John Smith leads an Labour attack on government policies in the Commons on Wednesday. The Prime Minister and Mr Smith - who has an embarrassing party split of his own - will be under enormous pressure to score well in the gladiatorial contest.

However, the grassroots message received by many Tory MPs and ministers over the last week of the Whitsun recess was said yesterday to have echoed the abysmal rating given to John Major in last week's Daily Telegraph Gallup poll.

The Second Reading, today and tomorrow, of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, is bound to add to the damaging public perception of Tory splits as Lady Thatcher and her allies repeat their call for a referendum; something Mr Major has said he will not concede.

The Lords battle over the Maastricht treaty legislation will drag through to the end of next month, and would further weaken Conservative chances in the Christchurch by- election - if party managers bite that bullet and stage an early contest.

An NOP poll in the Mail on Sunday put the Conservatives 15 percentage points behind the Liberal Democrats in the Dorset constituency held by Robert Adley on a 40-point majority in last year's general election. Yesterday's poll gave the Liberal Democrats 53 per cent to the Tory 38 per cent.

Some Tory MPs believe that if Mr Major cannot turn the political tide in time for the October party conference, discipline might crack and he could face a leadership challenge calculated to destabilise him and, possibly, oust him from No 10 this November.

Changes made to the leadership rules in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's defeat in 1990 are not as tough as some make out. The rules guarantee the anonymity of the 34 MPs needed to trigger a contest, and the newly required identification of a challenger's two sponsors is not much of a deterrent to determined opponents of a leader who has not inspired the passionate support of the constituencies.

Although most commentators assume Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, is the hot tip for the succession, senior sources on the Tory right prefer Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, because of his record as a conciliator. At 63, he could also leave the door open for younger contenders to succeed him after the next election. The more pugnacious Mr Clarke is 53 next month.

While there were any number of MPs willing to complain privately about party turmoil and disarray yesterday, the prevailing mood was well reflected by David Mellor, the former cabinet minister. 'It's a nasty, sour, festering, awful mood,' he told London Weekend Television's Crosstalk programme.

'Parliament always degenerates into gossiping and nastiness as the summer recess approaches, but it's particularly foul this time. I personally think the party has got to get a grip on itself. If we don't hang together, we will certainly be hanged separately.'

Reading the Sunday newspapers, Mr Mellor said, was 'like having a bucket of dirty water thrown over you . . . I'm talking about what people are obviously hissing into the ears of journalists . . . Unless we pull together, this whole venture is going to become a major league disaster.'

Mr Gummer told On the Record that last year's withdrawal from the European exchange rate mechanism had been an act of 'very considerable competence', adding he had not heard anyone who worked with Mr Major say he was not up to the job. 'I have to say, sitting round that cabinet table, you see a man entirely in charge of what is a very difficult situation.'

As economic recovery took effect, bank balances would improve, and people would feel more secure in their jobs; that was what mattered. 'It'll be some time before that is felt,' Mr Gummer added. 'Meantime, we have to stand united as a Government and fight our way through as we've done in the past, in order that people will see that his competence and his leadership stands supreme.'

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