Parliament and Politics: Major dismisses 'froth and bubble' attack by Tebbit

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JOHN MAJOR yesterday dismissed the attacks on him by Lord Tebbit, the former chairman of the Conservative Party, saying: 'I am not going to be distracted by froth and bubble . . .'

But Lord Tebbit's criticism marks a new low in relations between Mr Major and the embittered supporters of his predecessor, Baroness Thatcher.

Lord Tebbit, given a life peerage by the Prime Minister in his dissolution honours list, yesterday warned Mr Major that he was alienating 'Essex man'.

With a side-swipe at the 'Euro-fanatic' Tristan Garel-Jones, the foreign office minister responsible for some of the Maastricht small print, Lord Tebbit widened his criticism to the Prime Minister's strategy for replacing the poll tax with the council tax.

'If that too goes wrong, I can imagine what they will say in the saloon bars of Essex and even in the tea-room in the House of Commons. 'Can't think why we ever got rid of the old bat (Lady Thatcher). She was right about the ERM, right about Europe and right about the poll tax', ' he wrote in the Daily Mail yesterday.

Party managers are keen to avoid Lady Thatcher emphasising the point by her appearance at the party conference next week in Brighton. Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, will meet her beforehand to discuss her arrival.

It is unclear whether she has changed her mind about speaking out at Brighton, but she has proved impossible to silence in the past. In her absence, Lord Tebbit is proving the most vocal critic of Mr Major's Maastricht policy.

He attacked Mr Major for insisting on pressing ahead with the ratification of the treaty and rejecting a referendum after the decision to withdraw sterling from the European exchange rate mechanism.

Mr Major annoyed some Tory MPs by using the opening of his speech in the Commons emergency debate last week to make a joke at Lord Tebbit's expense. 'I admire Lord Tebbit as a man, a fighter - a bruiser. He likes to bite your ankles even if you aren't walking up his pathway.'

The joke backfired on anti- Maastricht Tory MPs who said it was ill-judged and unnecessary. Lord Tebbit responded by urging the Prime Minister to take his own advice and act like Brer Rabbit, by hiding in the cabbage patch until it was clear which way he should go.

Yesterday, in spite of their sharp words, Mr Major indicated he would 'wait and see'. He said: 'This is a time for clear, cool and careful calculation . . . .' But that could leave him open to attack for dithering.