Fowler to launch pre-emptive strike on Tory dissidents

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A PRE-EMPTIVE strike against any unrest over the economy and the Maastricht treaty at the annual Conservative Party conference is being planned by Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman.

Sir Norman is preparing to remind Tory supporters in a letter to his constituents of John Major's election victory. But it will be seen as a clear signal to the party faithful that they should go to Brighton to support the Government rather than to criticise it.

Some Tory MPs have reported that anti-Maastricht Tories are planning to make a show of strength at the October conference. They have warned that the anti-Maastricht campaigners have been working hard in the constituencies to fill any vacant seats with their own supporters.

The conference organisers are planning to avoid any chance of a head-on confrontation with the Government on Maastricht by ensuring that the motion to be debated is anodyne.

Party leaders have privately brushed off the threat of trouble. Baroness Thatcher has let it be known she does not want to use a fringe meeting of the Conservative Way Forward to rally the opponents of the treaty.

The former Prime Minister will appear on the conference platform during the week, but party leaders are not expecting a head of steam to built up over Maastricht. Although some constituencies are expected to call for a referendum on the treaty, the motion chosen for debate will support the Government's strategy.

The leadership is more anxious about the impact of the recession on the Tory faithful, and will hope to avoid a rough ride for Norman Lamont, the Chancellor, who will reply to the economic debate.

The anti-Maastricht campaigners are seeking to combine both strains of opinion by raising support for a cut in interest rates, even if it means withdrawing from the Exchange Rate Mechanism, which would achieve their aim of sabotaging the treaty.

One pro-Maastricht Tory MP said: 'It is rather worrying. They are clashing head-on with John Major but what they forget is that Mrs Thatcher had a difficult time in 1981 with the economy and went on to win two more general elections.'

Party workers believe Sir Norman's letter will reflect the mood of the Tory rank and file who attend the conferences.

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