Tories fear voters are 'on strike'

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The Independent Online
CONSERVATIVE right-wingers have issued a warning that their traditional supporters are 'on strike' - on the day that the party officially launched its European election campaign.

An editorial in Conservative Way Forward, which is edited by Sir George Gardiner MP, argues that Conservative backing among traditional supporters is 'barely ahead of Labour's', that popularity among 'the likes of Essex man' trails far behind, and that 'effectively, Tory supporters are on strike'.

The article is unsigned but Sir George, chairman of the powerful centre-right 92 Group of Tory MPs, accepts responsibility for editorials. The publication is circulated to members of the Conservative Way Forward group whose president is Baroness Thatcher and chairman Lord Parkinson.

The intervention caused dismay in government ranks. One exasperated minister said: 'The only real problem we have in the party is disunity. We have the right stance on Europe and the economy is going our way. If there were not these distractions caused by strife within the party we would be beginning to make an impact'.

The article was published as the Conservative Party chairman, Sir Norman Fowler, and the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, refused to predict that their party would make net gains in the elections on 9 June. Sir Norman, who wrongly predicted gains in this month's council elections, told a Westminster news conference: 'I am not going to start the campaign by speculating on the result.'

He also insisted that the election would be about visions of Europe, rather than John Major's popularity. 'If you are talking about a referendum on the Prime Minister, that was the 1992 general election,' he said.

With the Prime Minister due to launch the European manifesto tomorrow, Mr Hurd spelt out the main thrust of the Tory campaign. He told a Westminster press conference: 'If you vote Conservative you are voting for a Europe which goes with the grain of what the British people want - a decentralised, free market, outward- looking European Union based on the nation states.'

The Labour and Liberal Democrat parties hanker after a federal Europe in which all the serious decision-taking was centralised in Brussels, he said. 'Their Europe will impose burdens on business and inhibit the creation of the new jobs that Europe so desperately needs,' Mr Hurd added.

John Prescott, Labour's employment spokesman, said that support for the European social chapter of workers' rights would be at the heart of Labour's appeal. David Blunkett, Labour Party chairman, said: 'The Tories are in complete disarray over their policy. Their MEPs are signed up to a Christian Democrat manifesto which stands in complete contrast to the varied and various and pronouncements by Cabinet members and pretenders to John Major's throne.'

The Liberal Democrats released a dossier of '10 key broken promises' from the Conservative Party's European election manifesto of 1989.

These included pledges to retain zero-rating for VAT on domestic fuel and power, to apply tough controls on drinking water quality and to work for higher standards of health and safety at work.

Charles Kennedy, Liberal Democrat president, said: 'The last Conservative Euro manifesto was called 'Leading Europe into the 1990s'. A more appropriate title would have been 'Misleading Britain into the 1990s'.'

In Scotland, Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, claimed his party was ahead in two of the six seats and the main challenger in the other four.