Heading for meltdown? Tories fear election rout

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The Conservatives could be heading for a meltdown after the next election, senior Tory MPs warned Michael Howard last night after the defection of a former minister to Labour and a devastating opinion poll predicting the worst defeat for a century.

The Conservatives could be heading for a meltdown after the next election, senior Tory MPs warned Michael Howard last night after the defection of a former minister to Labour and a devastating opinion poll predicting the worst defeat for a century.

Robert Jackson, a former minister for higher education in the Thatcher government, defected to Labour, saying the Tories no longer had a clear identity or role in British politics.

He said Tony Blair's party was a comfortable home for any "One Nation" Tories and that the Conservatives were "incoherent" under Mr Howard's leadership.

Senior "One Nation" Conservative MPs hinted last night that they could defect and the Tory party could fragment after the election unless there was an unexpected surge in Conservative support. One former minister told The Independent: "Robert Jackson is right. We don't stand for anything. We are facing a seismic shift in politics. We could be heading for a meltdown."

He said unless the Tories gained enough seats to stand a chance of forming a government after another election, there could be more defections to Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Tory MPs were demoralised by a Populus poll for the News of the World of 202 marginal seats showing Mr Blair is on track to win a third landslide in May with a 160-seat majority.

That could leave the Tories with just 163 MPs, two less than they returned at Labour's 1997 landslide and their worst showing since 1906.

A survey by the schools inspectorate Ofsted at the weekend showed nearly five out of six school pupils could not identify Mr Howard as the leader of the Conservative Party.

The defection of Mr Jackson, 58, threatened to wreck the launch today by Mr Howard of the Tories' main trumpeted election promise to offer about £6bn in tax cuts. "It is in the country's best interests that Tony Blair rather than Michael Howard should form the next government," said Mr Jackson. He said it would mean "certain harm" to Britain if the Tories won the next election, against all the odds.

His decision to cross the floor of the Commons overshadowed Mr Howard's long-planned announcement at the weekend that David James, the corporate troubleshooter, had identified, in a review for the Conservatives, that public spending could be cut by £35bn.

It sparked claims, which were denied by Mr Jackson, that the timing had been deliberately designed to sabotage Mr Howard's launch of his spending and tax plans.

Mr Howard said £23bn of the savings would be spent on public services, including increases in spending on more prisons, and defence. That leaves £12bn to be allocated on tax cuts and the repayment of debt, which will be outlined today.

Mr Howard attempted to shrug off the defection but officials launched a smear campaign, saying privately that Mr Jackson wanted a peerage and hoped Mr Blair would help secure him a post as a university vice-chancellor.

Mr Jackson, who had already announced his retirement from the Commons, was accused by party workers of "stabbing them in the back" by canvassing with them on Friday night, without telling them of his decision.

John Griffiths, chairman of his Conservative Association in Wantage, Oxfordshire, said: "There is nothing in his letter [of resignation] to indicate why he woke up and decided, 'I am now going to dump on my friends'."

The former shadow culture secretary, Julie Kirkbride, said: "I think it is rather vindictive and unkind of him to seek to damage us in this way when he has been nurtured so well.

"We can only assume that there is some kind of deal over a peerage."

Mr Howard insisted he could still win the contest, expected in May, saying: "Let's be realistic, the election is not going to be decided on the basis of what Robert Jackson did."

But the former shadow cabinet minister John Bercow, appearing on GMTV, urged Tories not to indulge in personal abuse. He said Mr Jackson's decision was "certainly a wounding blow for us".

Mr Howard, speaking on BBC's Breakfast with Frost, said there were "real disagreements between us" over criticism of Mr Blair on the war on Iraq, which Mr Jackson supported, membership of the euro, and university top-up fees which Mr Jackson also supported.

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, said: "This is an enormously significant political event and very bad news for Michael Howard who cannot hold the support of his Parliamentary Party. You don't get a more core vote than that."

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, will commit his party today to public spending cuts of £5bn on top of £20bn identified by the Chancellor's Gershon review.

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