Feel-good factor has Tories split

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Indy Politics
The Government's clear victory in last night's vote on the Common Agricultural Policy did not obscure a fresh outbreak of Tory disarray earlier in the day which saw two senior ministers at odds over the return of the "feel-good" factor.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, confidently predicted at the Conservatives' morning local government elections news conference that the factor would reappear "well before the next general election", in clear repudiation of the warning by Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, last week that it could take more like two years.

And despite the win in the annual Commons vote on European Union farm pricing, the gulf with eight of the nine Euro rebels without the party whip remains as wide as before. Only Nicholas Budgen, the MP for Wolverhampton South-West, who voted with the Government in two separate votes, stands any chance of receiving the whip back by Easter.

Eight rebels voted with the Government on the first vote on Labour's amendment: Mr Budgen, Sir Richard Body (Holland with Boston), Michael Carttiss (Great Yarmouth), Christopher Gill (Ludlow), Teresa Gorman (Billericay), Tony Marlow (Northampton North), Richard Shepherd (Aldridge Brownhills) and John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood).

But government business managers have made it clear that only active support for the Government will count in the process of earning back the whip. Sir Teddy Taylor, the unofficial spokesman for eight of the nine, would have collected additional disapproval by abstaining in both votes.

The Home Secretary's upbeat view about the revival of Tory fortunes at the earlier news conference will be seen as an effort to lift morale in the wake of angry Conservative reaction to Mr Clarke's alleged gaffe.

Confronted by Mr Howard's claim at a separate press conference, Mr Clarke laughed and said: "Well, there we are. That must be very encouraging news. One thing I always say is that I do not go in for forecasting human emotions."

Brushing aside Opposition demands at Prime Minister's questions for him to resign, John Major said the Government had had to take long-term difficult decisions, but the country now had "the best prospects for rising living standards year after year ... that will produce a very good `feel-good' factor".

Labour later poured scorn on a suggestion from Jeremy Hanley, the Tory party chairman, that it "might just possibly" be dissatisfaction with the prospect of a Labour government that was causing any lack of confidence in the financial markets.

That contribution to a growing atmosphere of farce came moments after Mr Howard had insisted that only the Chancellor or other Treasury ministers should comment on the markets or the value of sterling.

The feared loss of hundreds of Tory council seats in the May elections will intensify behind-the-scenes agitation for Mr Major's replacement before the next election. But Mr Hanley is seen as a scapegoat and could go in the summer.

The Government's troubles will be further highlighted today in what is expected to be a close vote in an obscure parliamentary sub-committee vote on EU proposals to standardise the list of countries from which a visa is needed. In Britain the number of countries will rise by 43, and will include at least 28 in the Commonwealth.

A government defeat turns largely on whether committee member Bernard Jenkin, the Euro-sceptical MP for Colchester, is prepared to vote against the Government.