Tories 'fighting like ferrets in a sack'

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The Conservative Party is so split that some Tory MPs are privately wishing their Labour colleagues in the Commons good luck for the May election, Tony Blair has disclosed.

The Labour leader says in an interview for this week's New Statesman magazine: "It is quite extraordinary when I hear Conservative MPs are sidling up to some of our MPs and saying, 'I can't say this publicly, but the best of luck." He says: "The Tories are fighting like ferrets in a sack."

There were strong rumours at Westminster last night that some of the MPs who had supported John Redwood's leadership challenge had held a secret Westminster strategy meeting yesterday. When one backbench supporter was approached by The Independent in the Commons last night, he said there had been a meeting of like-minded MPs - but they had been discussing ways in which they could help with the general election campaign.

But the tensions between the left and right of the Tories are so great that the MP then falsely accused two Europhile colleagues of mischief- making and rumour-mongering.

Andrew MacKinlay, Labour MP for Thurrock, told The Independent that he was one of the MPs who had been wished "good luck" by Tory MPs. He said there were two groups of Conservatives who were hoping for a Labour election victory: the democrats who thought it was time for a change of government, and those who wanted a spell in Opposition to settle the direction the party was to take.

"People talk of a scenario in which they have to go down to defeat before they can come back," Mr MacKinlay said. "Some of them want a shoot-out; an Armageddon row in which the good fight the bad."

Mr Blair told New Statesman: "The Tory party is in the same position as Labour in the early Eighties. Then, as with the Conservatives now, the disunity was a symptom of a fundamental disagreement and therefore you couldn't simply respond to messages to unite. ... The problem with Major is that he has not offered the Tories a decision, and as a leader you've got to do that."