Heseltine warns Tories of 15 years in the wilderness

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Indy Politics

Yet more Tory grandees tore into each other as the party's leadership contest continued to be dogged by bitter arguments over Europe.

After John Major's savage attack on Margaret Thatcher, Lord Heseltine joined the fray to warn that a victory for Iain Duncan Smith would keep the Tories out of power for the next 15 years.

The former deputy prime minister said that choosing the shadow Defence Secretary would send a signal to the British public that the party was not interested in reaching out to floating voters. "You can imagine the sign hanging outside Tory Central Office, 'Shop closed – out to lunch'," Lord Heseltine said in an article for London's Evening Standard.

His withering comments came as Lord Lamont of Lerwick, a former chancellor who presided over the ERM fiasco, leapt to the defence of Baroness Thatcher and Mr Duncan Smith. Clearly angered by Mr Major's coruscating demolition of Lady Thatcher's legacy, Lord Lamont countered that she was not responsible for the problems of the 1992-97 Tory government.

The latest clash followed the pattern of the past few days, with former senior figures in the party using Kenneth Clarke and Mr Duncan Smith as proxies in their war of words against each other. In his article, Lord Heseltine widened his criticism to accuse William Hague of abandoning the pragmatic European policy that had guided every Tory leader since Macmillan. "It was replaced by a brand of Euroscepticism, indeed Europhobia, unknown in this country since I first stood as a Conservative candidate in 1959," Lord Heseltine said. "The result was a disaster – 2001 produced the worst Tory result in living memory."

Lord Heseltine, whose challenge to Lady Thatcher in 1990 destroyed her premiership, compared eurosceptics such as Mr Duncan Smith to the far left of the Labour Party in the 1980s. "The extremists of the left behaved in exactly this way and nearly destroyed the Labour Party. It took Labour 18 years to learn that electoral success in a modern democracy depends upon persuading reasonable people that you can be trusted to exercise power."

Lord Lamont said it was "a mistake and regrettable" that Mr Major had this week accused Lady Thatcher of undermining his government.

"John Major's difficulties as Prime Minister were not caused by Mrs Thatcher, they were inherent in the situation," the peer told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "I don't think he did any good – I don't think he did himself any good – by resurrecting this. I mean Mrs Thatcher had her problems with Ted Heath. It always happens."

Mr Major continued the blood-letting yesterday in an interview with The Spectator in which he attacked Lord Tebbit for peddling what was "crude innuendo" about Michael Portillo.

On a tour of the South-west to highlight his opposition to the Liberal Democrats, Mr Clarke himself backed Lord Heseltine's comments, claiming a victory for his rival would leave the Tories out of power for "a generation".

Mr Duncan Smith was boosted by a letter from senior businessmen, including the spread betting tycoon and Tory donor Stuart Wheeler, backing his campaign.

But Mr Clarke emerged as the clear winner of Wednesday's live Newsnight debate, with both a BBC poll and bookmakers William Hill putting him ahead. In the biggest poll of its type, the programme's internet poll of 6,000 viewers found that more than 79 per cent believed Mr Clarke had won, compared with just 21 per cent for Mr Duncan Smith. Hills shortened the odds on Mr Clarke becoming leader from 7-4 to 6-4.