Tory moderates pour scorn on breakaway party claim

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The Independent Online
Revived reports that up to 40 Conservative MPs are plotting to break away, form a new party, and back a Blair government on Europe, were roundly repudiated last night.

While moderate Tory sources did not want to be identified, likely suspects told The Independent that it would be foolish to give up the fight for the soul of the Conservative Party, even if a right-winger such as Michael Portillo succeeded John Major as leader of the Opposition in the Commons.

The one certainty shared by Conservative MPs from the left and right of the party this week was that Mr Major is "heading for a stunning defeat" in the general election.

There is also a well-founded suspicion on the Tory right that there could be as many as 20 Conservative MPs in the new Parliament who would indeed support Tony Blair in Commons votes on European issues - as Labour MPs backed the Heath government on Europe in 1972.

For the moment, they draw the line at that, and no Conservative MP yesterday recognised the name of the conspiracy party, the European Democrats, let alone speculation that Michael Heseltine or Kenneth Clarke might lead them into a political wilderness.

A large-scale political realignment, with the right of the Labour Party joining forces with the Tory left and Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats to form a new centre-ground party would, however, be a more attractive prospect. There is no question of that happening, if Labour wins the election. However, a fifth Labour defeat would be so traumatic that anything could happen.

Yesterday's reports - in the Mail and Sun - were built on the assumption of a Labour win and a Portillo takeover of the Tories. "Astonishing", "ludicrous", "garbage" were some of the gentlest responses from those who would know if there was a plot taking place.

Certainly, the Tory moderates, or "wets" as they were so scornfully dubbed by Margaret Thatcher, would hope that Mr Clarke or Mr Heseltine would lead the resistance against a Tory lurch to the right. "But we would not give up the fight so easily." They saw no reason why they should leave their party, "gift-wrapped" for Portillo, Redwood or Howard.

One Cabinet source said that while Redwood or Howard would be unacceptable to the moderates, he saw no reason why they could not "do business" with Portillo. Another Cabinet source said he "shuddered" at the thought.

But the death wish was running strong yesterday. One leading moderate backbencher said: "For the country's sake, Labour has got to win. From the European viewpoint, the country needs a Labour victory."

A Euro-sceptic said it was assumed that a significant number of his colleagues would help a Labour Government get European legislation through the Commons. "The old coalitions are breaking down," he said.

However, yesterday's reports went further, saying that the Tory moderates would only back Mr Blair on condition that he gave them proportional representation, thus ensuring that they survived a further election.

One source said that it could not be assumed that all his moderate colleagues would back PR. He thought that about half of the 50 MPs in the hard-core Macleod Group might favour electoral reform, but by no means all of them.

"As for a split," he said, "I can't honestly see it happening. The SDP failed to break the mould, and we must keep the Conservative Party united for as long as possible."