Tories say the unthinkable

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Tory attempts to create a united front for the election fell apart again yesterday when two former ministers, John Biffen and Edwina Currie, talked openly about the party's prospects after defeat in May.

While the party's most die-hard loyalists assembled for a pre- election Conservative Central Council meeting in Bath, Mrs Currie said that in the event of defeat, John Major should quit the leadership quickly. "Please, John, please, don't hang around. Don't make us wait," she said.

Mr Biffen said the scale of defeat might be so great that all the leading contenders could lose their seats.

The Prime Minister, who will today address the council with a trailblazing speech for the election, replied that those who were worth their salt were fighting for victory. With feeling, Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, told the council meeting: "If you don't have something to say that will help us win, don't say anything at all."

But, by then, he was too late to stop the two former ministers from the furthest wings of the party - the Euro-sceptic Mr Biffen and the Europhile Mrs Currie - breaking loose.

Speaking of the succession to Mr Major, something the activists in Bath steadfastly refused to do, Mr Biffen said: "It may be that the nature of the defeat is such that many of the obvious candidates for the succession themselves have been defeated."

The party, he said, might have to wait for leadership contenders to get back into the House of Commons through by-elections.

"There are many who feel John Major should remain the leader," he said, "not least to provide a decent period during which the party can consider the claims of the candidates and, as it were, let them use the catwalk to demonstrate their attractiveness and skills."

But Mrs Currie said it would be "disastrous" if Mr Major stayed on for long as Leader of the Opposition. "He would do it for the best of motives but ... we ought to have our leadership contest over, cleanly and quickly."

As Alan Clark, another former minister, pointed out, if the Conservatives do lose the May election, Mrs Currie would be one of the first to be out of a seat. He dismissed her remarks as a "final fling".

But the party will today want to devote its attention to the leader's speech at Bath, in which Mr Major will make his own "passionate and personal" claim for the centre ground of British politics.

Spinning the content of the speech last night, Conservative sources said Mr Major would speak as someone who had had to struggle against a background of personal adversity in housing, education, employment and neighbourhood, and that he would say that the next government would aim "to make sure that those who don't have, do have".

Mr Major appeared ready to suggest that he was putting himself above the short-term fray for the election prize, with an agenda to build what he will call "a people's Britain" in which all the people - including the have-nots - can share.

That grand and idealistic picture was somewhat tarnished yesterday, however, by an excoriating and deeply personal attack on Tony Blair, the Labour leader, who was portrayed by Dr Mawhinney as an inexperienced, smarmy, grinning and hypocritical Socialist.

The party chairman said the Conservatives would be asking the people to choose between Mr Blair and Mr Major, "between smarm and substance, between grins and grit, between Socialism and success".

Mr Major was facing a growing rebellion from senior Conservative MPs who are taking up the offer from a millionaire businessman, Paul Sykes, to give pounds 500,000 to fund their election expenses if they will come out against a single European currency in defiance of the Prime Minister's preferred "wait and see" approach.

David Heathcoat-Amory, the former Treasury minister, yesterday joined senior Tory Euro-sceptics, John Redwood and Norman Lamont, who are expected to accept the offer.

Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, accused senior Tory MPs of accepting "bribes" from the millionaire businessman'

Mr Cook challenged Dr Mawhinney to instruct all Conservative candidates to refuse the money. "If he will not do so, it is the voters who will treat with contempt a Tory party whose candidates can be bribed to oppose the policies of their own leader."

Despair and optimism, pages 8,9

Leading article, page 19