Tory MPs say Major is a winner

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The Independent Online
THE removal of John Major is not seen by Tory MPs as the solution to their unpopularity, according to our MORI poll - which also illustrates the extent to which the Conservative Party is growing more Eurosceptic.

Asked about the outcome of the next general election should Mr Major continue as Prime Minister, 72 of the 96 MPs believe the Conservatives will achieve a majority. Significantly, 11 per cent think Tony Blair will win, while 2 per cent expect a hung Parliament.

By contrast, only 33 MPs (34 per cent) think the Tories would win with Michael Heseltine as their leader. MPs in marginal constituencies are more likely to expect a Labour victory under Mr Major (14 per cent) but only slightly more likely to want the President of the Board of Trade. Only 36 per cent of those with slim majorities believe a Heseltine premiership would deliver poll success.

These findings, which contradict Westminster wisdom, may imply Mr Major's supporters are actively co-operating with surveys into their intentions. However only 14 ministers, who are part of the supposedly loyal payroll vote, were polled.

Meanwhile, Michael Portillo is catching up as the Conservative Party's favoured heir to Mr Major. Of those who will speculate about a second ballot, 7 per cent back Mr Heseltine and 5 per cent back the Secretary of State for Employment.

That reflects the growing Euroscepticism of the Conservative Party, which stands out clearly from the poll. Of the 96 MPs, 28 per cent describe themselves as Euro-enthusiasts and none as federalists. Forty-three per cent say they are Euro-sceptics and 3 per cent want Britain out of the EU. Seventeen per cent have "mixed feelings".

On the vexed issue of a single currency, MORI asked Tory MPs if they thought the Government should offer a referendum, an idea floated by the departing Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, last week. Forty per cent said yes, 34 per cent said no, and 26 per cent did not know.

Half of the MPs in marginal constituencies backed the idea, reflecting the view that a referendum would, as far as MPs are concerned, please the public. Even a quarter of those who describe themselves as Euro- enthusiasts back the idea.

Yet, despite this drift to Euro-scepticism within Tory ranks, Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, is the MPs' choice to succeed Mr Hurd. This is a key position, the Foreign Secretary being responsible for the direction of policyin the run-up to the 1996 InterGovernmental Conference. Mr Rifkind is from the party's left, although his statements have been more sceptic in tone of late.

More than a quarter of those polled want Mr Rifkind, including 24 per cent of those who want a referendum. Thirteen per cent would like to see Mr Portillo - a figure that rises to 18 per cent only among supporters of a poll on single currency. Five per cent believe that the decision should rest with Mr Major, 6 per cent back Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Scotland, 3 per cent want Michael Howard, the Euro-sceptic Home Secretary, and 2 per cent back each of John Redwood, Secretary of State for Wales, Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, Lord Tebbit, the former party chairman, and Mr Heseltine and Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, and Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, each had the support of one MP.

If Mr Major must remain uncertain about the precise level of his support, he can conclude his decision to call a contest has made him popular. It was praised by 88 MPs, 92 per cent of the sample, including all the ministers and marginal-seat MPs. That, however, may simply prove that on this, as on some other issues, MPs can be out of touch with the public.

Inside Story, page 24-26 Alan Watkins, page 27 Leading article, page 28