'Heartbroken' Major appeals to Tories for truce over leader

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John Major said last night he was "heartbroken" at the state of the Conservative Party and warned that it will remain in the electoral wilderness unless it stops its internal feuding.

In an emotional BBC interview, the former Tory prime minister appealed for a truce in the battle between Iain Duncan Smith and his critics, accusing some Tories of putting their ambition and ideological beliefs before the party's interests.

He said: "As someone who joined the Conservative Party as a boy ... it breaks my heart to see what a relatively small number of people are doing to one of the great political parties of history. And if it doesn't stop, the damage will grow. It will get worse and worse and support will diminish and diminish. Divided parties do not attract the support of the electorate."

Mr Major told the Hardtalk programme on BBC News 24: "I am heartbroken at what I see it doing to Conservative support - the people who work for the party in the country, who don't wish to see this dispute, and the millions of people in our country who would like to change away from a government they see as failing, towards the Conservative Party, who do not feel they can do so until the Conservative Party ends the squabbles that have gone on for so long."

Mr Major, who was Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997, was incensed by Mr Duncan Smith's actions as a rebel backbencher when he opposed the Maastricht Treaty that his government was pushing through Parliament.

In his appeal for unity, Mr Major stopped short of saying Mr Duncan Smith should remain leader. "I hope that this will come to a conclusion; I don't know what the conclusion will be, but I hope it will come to a conclusion because, above all things, our country, my country, the United Kingdom needs a strong, clear-cut, slightly right-of-centre party as a balance to our political system."

Mr Duncan Smith received some support from an unlikely source yesterday when Cherie Blair spoke of her sympathy for Betsy Duncan Smith over the investigation by Parliament's anti-sleaze watchdog into whether the Tory leader misused his Commons allowances to pay her as a secretary.

Mrs Blair, who said she was "not Superwoman" when the "Cheriegate" affair erupted last year, said: "I always feel sympathy with every woman who is trying to juggle a lot of tasks." She added: "I have sympathy for anybody that is hounded by the press."

But there was little sympathy for the beleaguered Tory leader from the former head of his office Vanessa Gearson, who spent the day finalising the dossier she will submit to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner today. Ms Gearson, a deputy director of Conservative Central Office, will allege that she was threatened with legal action when she refused to sign a statement to the inquiry backing Mr Duncan Smith's version of how he ran his office.

Mr Duncan Smith, who has denied putting staff under any pressure, was dogged by questions about the investigation during a visit to Cornwall yesterday. At a press conference, he told one reporter to "just settle down", "behave yourself" and await the outcome of the probe. He said: "I called for this inquiry. I wanted the inquiry. That inquiry is under way and I am utterly confident it will clear my name. And that is simply all I want to say about it." The Tory leader insisted: "As far as I am concerned my party across the country is united in this one single principle: they want me to lead the party to the next election and to win it."

In the Commons, Peter Hain, the Leader of the House, urged Tories not to depose Mr Duncan Smith, saying he was doing a "great job" for Labour and Liberal Democrats. He added: "I see little huddles of Conservative members in need of counselling."

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