Activists keep faith in Tory recovery

The closest Tory loyalists could come to defeatism yesterday was to talk in hushed tones about the possibility of a hung result in the May election; with no overall majority in the Commons for John Major.

While former ministers were broadcasting their fears of clear-cut defeat to the nation, the Conservative Central Council was assembling in Bath to be rallied to the flag by Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman.

But the council representatives - largely elderly officers of the country's constituency associations - needed little encouragement.

While MPs at Westminster were this week talking of the possibility, if not likelihood, of losing as many as 100 seats in the election, the party activists were talking of getting back into power with the same kind of 20-seat majority Mr Major won in 1992.

One woman from South Thanet said that while some people talked of a 60- seat Tory majority, she thought 20 was about right. "We'll get a majority, but it could be about the same as last time," she said. "It'll be a tight squeeze," she added.

A man from Hemel Hempstead echoed that view, saying: "I imagine it'll be more tight this time. A majority of 100 would be nice but it's more likely to be 10 or 20." A similar view came from a man from Chelmsford, who said: "It'll be small but not much different from last time."

But there was also talk of an even tighter result - though not defeat. "It wouldn't surprise me if it was a hung parliament," a man from Bath said. "It's not looking brilliant at the moment."

But the Conservative grass roots activists refused even to consider the possibility that Mr Major might have to stand down as leader following election defeat.

While John Biffen and Edwina Currie, two former ministers, were painting that scenario in radio broadcasts yesterday, the party faithful were busily uniting behind Mr Major; defying the faint hearts and deploring defeatist talk.

"He's a fine chap," said a man from Milton Keynes, when asked about Mr Major. "And I've not ever thought about the succession, because it is not happening."

One man from Charnwood, Stephen Dorrell's new constituency, said Mr Major would be the next leader, though he fancied his own MP, Mr Dorrell, for some time in the future. "I think he would make a good leader," he said. But the man from West Chelmsford was more representative of the general mood. "Older Cabinet ministers would go and new people would come into the Cabinet, and new runners would enter the race. There's plenty of time yet. Let's see, shall we?" he said.