Tory faithful turn fire on rebels and the BBC

CONSERVATIVE CENTRAL COUNCIL: Heseltine magic lifts grass roots but Hanley fails to impress. John Rentoul reports
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Indy Politics
The grass roots of the Conservative Party are seething with frustration, and they were not cheered yesterday by Jeremy Hanley, the party chairman. It took the old magic of Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, to restore a little of their self-belief.

The anger of constituency representatives gathered in Birmingham is directed at rebel Conservative MPs and the media in equal measure. The theme is the "constant interruptions" of politicians, especially on the BBC.

"The media haven't forgiven the party for winning the last election," said Javed Arrain, chairman of Sparkbrook Conservatives. But he reserved his harshest words for the nine rebel MPs who do not take the Conservative whip. "Can't these fellows understand the simple logic of what they are doing - they are simply handing things on a plate to the Labour Party," he said.

Barrie Roberts, from Birmingham, said: "In the first few days after Tony Blair was elected I said to my wife: `You know, I agreed with everything he said.' She looked at me, and I said that what he hasn't said anything about is what it is all going to cost."

Peter Hutchison, councillor at Hart district council, said of the Conservative rebel MPs: "These fringe elements are not following the consensus and I think that is wrong. If that is what they want they should go and form their own party."

Marjorie Boorman, from Yeovil, said: "John Major has quite a wonderful character which doesn't come across. He should do what they did with Margaret Thatcher. They should send him off to charm school.

"I don't take Tony Blair seriously - he's a very presentable young man, with aspirations beyond his ability. He's very good for the Labour Party's image, but I don't know if he's got the nous to really do it.

"It's good to listen to Michael Heseltine - it's perhaps not 100 per cent reality, but at least it made worth getting up at 6am and driving all the way here."

Audrey Bartlett, also from Yeovil, said: "Look what John Major's done in Northern Ireland. What other man could have done that? There is a bias in the BBC. I want to see more positive things reported. I want to be uplifted, I don't want to be drawn down."

Mr Hanley was given a noticeably cool reception as he developed the Conservative Central Office tactic of distinguishing between Tony Blair and his party.

"Mr Blair is a Trojan horse, inside which lurk the trade union bosses, the apostles of the politics of envy, the politically correct, the loonies from Labour councils, and all the luvvies and all the lefties," Mr Hanley said.

They heard it but they did not quite believe it as he painted an uncomfortable scenario of Labour victory at the next election. And he appeared not to believe fully that this scenario was imaginary himself, saying: "There will still be lots of places that are coloured blue on election night."

Mr Heseltine told them what they wanted to hear and said: "I've seen the Labour Party in power. I hope, and this party hopes, never to see Labour in power ever again."

In a sideswipe at some of the contenders for the Conservative leadership, he said: "I've been in opposition. Not all my colleagues have. Let me tell you there's absolutely nothing to be said for it. I know what it would do for this country."

It will not have been lost on this sophisticated party audience that neither Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Employment, nor the Prime Minister himself has been in opposition.