Heseltine rounds on Goldsmith'spoll party

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Sir James Goldsmith bore the brunt of a blazing attack on the Government's critics by Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, who yesterday accused the millionaire Referendum Party leader of commuting from his mansions abroad to threaten the Tories with defeat at home.

The speech drew a stamping, shouting ovation from the conference faithful, and it is expected to herald the beginning of an all-out attack on the Referendum Party by Tory leaders. He finished by signalling V for victory and five more years in office.

Mr Heseltine also turned his fire on the Tory Euro-sceptic rebels, warning them in the bluntest terms that the Tories could face 17 years in opposition like Labour if they appeared divided at the next election.

"Let me be frank - if you want Labour in power, just go on behaving the way Labour behaved. That kept them in opposition for 17 years," he said. If they continued to cause divisions "at a time of maximum damage" to the party, they would deserve "utter contempt".

But the Deputy Prime Minister reserved his most withering blast for the leader of the Referendum Party. It was a high-risk strategy, raising Sir James's credibility, and there was some questioning in the Heseltine camp before deciding to go ahead with the attack.

The party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, was cautious about criticising Tory supporters of the Referendum Party earlier this week after it was disclosed that former Tory treasurer, Lord McAlpine, had defected and would be chairing Sir James's party conference next week.

But Mr Heseltine decided to take off the gloves. His success with the audience yesterday means his attack is almost certain to be followed up with a coordinated attack on the Referendum Party by the Tory leadership in the run-up to the election.

"Do you really want Labour to win?" Mr Heseltine told Sir James. "I say this to you. You're lucky. As you commute between the luxury of your hacienda in Mexico, your chateau in France, and your palazzo in Venice, just remember the rest of us.

"We would have to stay here. We would have to suffer under them [Labour]."

The Tory high command has been trying to avoid a confrontation with Sir James and his high-profile candidates, including the former Thatcher economic adviser, Sir Alan Walters. Some Euro-sceptic MPs at Bournemouth have been predicting that at least 150 MPs and candidates will give clear support in their election addresses to the Referendum Party's demands for a national referendum on Britain's membership of Europe.

The Independent has learned that John Redwood, the former Cabinet minister, reported to the Tory leadership that it was possible Sir James would back down if the Government offered two referendums on a common market or common government. The Tory party rejected the idea.