Plea for loyalty infuriates Tory right-wingers: 'Witch-hunt' before backbench elections

ANGER among right-wing Tory MPs that they are being targeted as 'disloyal' to John Major has spilled over in public in the run-up to next week's key elections for the 1922 executive and other backbench committees.

Right-wingers are infuriated that an attack on their Westminster power base is being presented as a show of loyalty to the Prime Minister by a coalition of 'wet' Lollards group MPs, right-wing deserters and pro-Europeans.

The principal target of the new, Mainstream, grouping is Sir George Gardiner, the MP for Reigate, a 1922 executive member who also chairs the right-wing 92 Group of MPs.

He was felt even by some right-wingers to have gone too far in voting against the Government in the Third Reading of the Maastricht Bill and on the vote on the social chapter.

A letter to MPs last week from the Mainstream group chairman, Sir Cranley Onslow, a senior backbencher, urged them to 'give the Government the support it needs and has the right to expect'.

Sir George insisted yesterday that trying to make loyalty an issue was 'totally bogus', hinting that the witch-hunters, some of them supporters of Kenneth Clarke, could easily turn against the Prime Minister in a leadership challenge.

'I do wonder whether some of those who are going around at the moment with loyalty pinned on their sleeve would turn out to be quite as loyal to John Major if the crunch ever came,' he said. Sir George, who organises a 'slate' of 92 Group candidates each year, has warned that the witch- hunters include a core of 'Euro-fanatics' who wanted Mr Major to change his current sceptical approach to European union.' It is not in the Prime Minister's interest to punish anybody,' he told BBC Television's On the Record.

'As far as I am aware, every one of the targeted members of the 22 support Mr Major. (It was) simply on the Maastricht issue alone we found we parted company.'

The other anti-Maastricht targets are the 1922 Committee executive members Sir Rhodes Boyson, Sir Ivan Lawrence, James Pawsey and John Townend, whose chairmanship of the Tory backbench finance committee is also under attack. Mr Townend has made a personal approach to the Prime Minister to protest at the way the campaign against them was being organised.

While Mr Major gave him an assurance that he had nothing to do with the vendetta, the Conservative high command has become concerned that backbench organisations no longer reflect 'mainstream' views. The Lollards group lacked the support to stop 92 Group candidates taking most of the key committee seats last year. This year, however, it has recruited key right-wingers, such as Ray Whitney and Sir James Spicer, to the cause of the ideological overhaul.