Tories peer into abyss on EU

John Rentoul looks at Major's options after Thursday's expected poll disaster
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The Independent Online
The prospect of the Conservative Party disintegrating before the next election edged slightly closer yesterday as it emerged most backbench Tory MPs plan to go beyond party policy by spelling out their hostility to the European Union in their personal election addresses.

As the Prime Minister considers how to respond to an expected dismal showing in Thursday's local elections, which could provide the focus for renewed Tory turmoil, how can he go about turning his and his party's fortunes round?

Proclaim the tide has turned

The local elections seem set to frustrate even the best spin-doctors. Last week a council by-election at Over Wallop, in Test Valley Borough Council in Hampshire, saw a 0.2 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats since last year, which was the worst Tory performance in local elections yet. Some Tories have pointed out there is nothing in party rules which says they have to put the party name on their posters and leaflets.

Luton MP John Carlisle said yesterday after knocking on doors in his constituency: "I have to say that if there was an election tomorrow I would have the word 'Conservative' in the very smallest print."

Challenge his critics in a leadership election

He has done that already and, in any case, his leadership is not the issue in the sense that neither Euro-sceptics nor pro-Europeans want to replace him. Simon Heffer in Saturday's Daily Mail set out the hardline sceptics' position: they want Mr Major to stay so he, rather than they, takes the blame for the election defeat they regard as inevitable.

Change policy

He has already shifted to the most Euro-sceptical stance which is possible, given the Cabinet's make-up. This was demonstrated by the huge fuss Chancellor Kenneth Clarke made about the apparently minor concession of promising a referendum if (as now seems inconceivable) a future Tory government recommends entry to a single European currency. A single-currency referendum was one of the concerted pledges right-wing Tory backbenchers were planning for their election addresses - now it will be in the official manifesto.

Reshuffle the Cabinet

One solution to the above problem would be to ditch leading pro-Europeans in the Cabinet, Kenneth Clarke and/or Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister. Either would be a sign of weakness and might precipitate the split Mr Major fears.

A more minor reshuffle would not shift what right-wing Tory newspapers have identified as the "left-wing lock" on the commanding heights of the Government. The recent Telegraph editorial which attacked Mr Major's administration as "a disaster" said four of the top five jobs were held by "the left", by which the editor, Charles Moore, meant pro-Europeans (he added the semi-sceptical Mr Major and the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, to the list, exempting only Home Secretary Michael Howard).

Woo the Tory Press

One of the Government's most difficult problems, as identified by the Chancellor last week, is that the former Tory press is now solidly Euro- sceptical and disparaging about Mr Major's leadership qualities, while being only notionally anti-Labour.

One pro-European Tory MP commented bitterly on yesterday's openly biased Sunday Express: "There's a saying that those whom the gods want to destroy they first make mad. As Kenneth [Clarke] said last week on the Today programme, the Tory press has gone off the rails, feeding off the witless ones. Every column has something about John Redwood in it."