Tory Euro-rebels escape censure: Anti-Maastricht Conservatives left their constituencies divided after Monday's vote, Colin Brown reports

Click to follow
Indy Politics
THE CONSERVATIVE Party was split down to its grass roots yesterday over the Government's defeat on the Bill to ratify the Maastricht treaty, leaving party leaders powerless to punish the rebels.

The Prime Minister's office yesterday said that John Major's call for loyalty to the party associations in Harrogate at the weekend was 'starting to work'. Although hackles were raised, there was little evidence of action against the rebels in their own constituencies.

One Conservative association chairman said: 'What are we supposed to do? What would you suggest? The fact is, there is nothing we can do.'

With the parties divided, the use of the ultimate deterrent - deselection - would be counter-productive.

The most outspoken grassroots criticism came from Roseanne Williams, chairwoman of the Wolverhampton South West Conservative Association, who was fuming with her MP, Nicholas Budgen, a leading anti-Maastricht rebel. At the moment, she said, she would not work for him.

'I shall go and see him on Friday and ask him what he is up to. It is bad for us, it is bad for the Conservative Party and it is bad for Britain. But there is nothing we can do. He has not gone far enough for me to suggest we deselect him.'

She said if Mr Budgen voted with Labour on the Social Chapter, 'I will never work with him again'. Protests and support in the constituency were equally divided, but only one member called for him to be deselected; 50 names are required.

In Twickenham, where Toby Jessel holds a 5,711 Conservative majority, telephone calls to the constituency association headquarters yesterday morning showed the party evenly divided over Mr Jessel's decision to vote against the Government.

'There is quite a good deal of support for his views and the stand he is taking,' Hillary Smith, the party agent for the seat, said. 'I have had some people saying they are not happy, but just as many saying 'We absolutely support what he is doing'. That does not imply they are disloyal to the Government. They are not. They support the Government and John Major. They would be horrified if people thought otherwise.' Tories there were more upset about the pit closures.

Richard Boddington, association chairman in Stroud, said there would be no retribution against the local MP, Roger Knapman, another rebel, who has a majority of 13,405. 'In November, he voted against the paving motion; then he resigned as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Archie Hamilton (the armed forces minister). The sincerity of his views is quite clear. You cannot say to somone 'You must vote for something you don't believe in'. You have to use the power of persuasion.' In South Worcestershire, the constituency of Michael Spicer, one of the ringleaders of the rebellion against the Government over Maastricht, the party officials may have been upset, but they were keeping a stiff upper lip.

There was a stormy meeting after the paving vote when Mr Spicer voted against the Government, but there are no plans to repeat it. 'At the meeting, several people made their views very clear to Mr Spicer and he responded in like vein, and other people supported the line he took. So there you are,' David Finch, the chairman of the constituency association, said.

Tories in Shropshire North were ringing up their constituency office to congratulate their local MP, John Biffen, for 'standing up for his principles', according to Michael Joyce, the constituency agent. The former Cabinet minister, dismissed after being described as 'semi-detached' by Lady Thatcher's press secretary, stood on a platform at the last election as 'pro-Europe, anti-Maastricht'.

'He was elected with an increased majority on that platform. People are grateful to have an MP who stands up for his principles,' Mr Joyce said. 'We are behind John Biffen. We don't want to see any serious damage to the Governnment. I don't think this has seriously damaged it.'

(Photograph omitted)