The Conservatives in Brighton: Fowler warns split could cost election

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TORY MPs and grassroots supporters were warned to back John Major or risk wrecking Tory election chances by splitting the party, in a blunt appeal for unity by Sir Norman Fowler, the chairman of the party.

Sir Norman told the conference that the party would not have won the general election without Mr Major. With the Prime Minister sitting by his side, Sir Norman told him: 'The party will back you in your battle against inflation.

'We recognise too that tough decisions will have to be taken on public spending.

'At a time when the private sector are having to make sacrifices, it is not unreasonable to expect that the public sector should do the same.'

In a barnstorming speech designed to raise party morale at the start of what promises to be the most difficult Tory party conference in years, Sir Norman said: 'We stand or fall as one party . . . The counter-attack starts here.'

Speaking immediately before two former party chairmen, Lord Tebbit and Kenneth Baker, delivered attacks against the Maastricht treaty at lunchtime fringe meetings, Sir Norman said the Prime Minister fought the general election on a commitment to oppose a federal Europe. 'That was our position then. And it is our position now. Our goal is a Europe open to British exports, not a Europe which imposes the costs of the social chapter on British industry . . . A Europe of nation states, where decisions are taken as close as possible to the people, not a Europe where all the decisions are taken in Brussels.'

He warned Tory MPs planning to vote against the Government on the bill to ratify the Maastricht treaty that splitting the party risked damaging the Conservatives' electoral chances.

Tory supporters hankering for the return of Baroness Thatcher were told by Sir Norman that the Government faced crises while she was in office. 'We face fresh challenges. We should not be surprised. No one ever believed it would be an armchair ride.

'But we should remember that whatever the debate, we stand or fall as one party.

'We have won more elections than any other party in Britain because we are the most united and the most determined party in Britain.

'Over the same period, Labour have been the most divided and most undisciplined party in Britain. That is why they have lost, and lost again.

'We should not contemplate going down the socialist road of division.'

He added: 'The lesson is that we must stand together and I do mean all: in our branches, in our associations, in our areas, in our local councils - and if I may say so among our MPs at Westminster too.'

Thousands of people had worked themselves to the bone for the Tory election victory. 'We must stay true to them,' he said.

But there was no hiding the opposition in the hall to creeping federalism in Europe. Some of the loudest cheers came when Sir Norman said Mr Major would not allow Britain to become part of a European superstate.

The only person prepared to argue for that kind of Europe at Maastricht was Mr Major, Sir Norman said.

Attacking Labour's new leader, Sir Norman turned a joke by John Smith at Blackpool last week, back at Labour. Mr Smith ridiculed Mr Major and Norman Lamont as Laurel and Hardy. Sir Norman said Mr Smith and his deputy, Margaret Beckett, were Whinge and Beckett.

(Photograph omitted)