Tory red faces as MPs scupper Major attack

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Indy Politics
Senior Conservative Party figures yesterday claimed they were the victims of "dirty tricks" after the launch of their campaign for the general election was marred by the disclosure that a Tory MP was engaged in talks with Liberal Democrat and Labour leaders about their plans for constitutional reform.

As Mr Major began his campaign breakfast with businessmen in Leeds, the BBC disclosed that Hugh Dykes had agreed to submit his own plans for reform to the Lib-Lab commission, which Mr Major had described as "profoundly dangerous" only 24 hours earlier.

It was the second blow in two days to Tory attempts to seize the initiative for its campaign after the allegations in a Sunday newspaper about Jerry Hayes, Tory MP for Harlow, and a gay lover, which he denies.

The party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, was barely able to conceal his anger about the BBC report after he unveiled the new Tory campaign poster warning that a Labour government would end "in tears".

Senior Tory sources said Labour had colluded with the BBC in the timing of the report. Mr Dykes, a maverick backbencher, had been engaged in talks with Labour spokesman Jack Straw about the party's plans for constitutional reform for six months, The Independent has learnt. Labour saw Mr Dykes's involvement as a coup. "It dealt quite a considerable blow to the Tory launch. This is trench warfare," said a senior Labour source.

Mr Dykes exchanged letters with Mr Straw last week, offering to attend a joint Labour-Liberal Democrat hearing. He made it clear he wanted to concentrate on the voting systems, including those for the European Parliament; the inclusion of the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law; and the reform of the House of Lords.

Mr Dykes, who was unreprentant, also dismissed suggestions that he might be preparing to defect to Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Labour sources confirmed he had expressed no intentions to defect. "He is not a potential Alan Howarth [the former Tory MP who joined Labour]. He is plugged into the Tory party and he is a close friend of Kenneth Clarke." That is unlikely to assuage the Conservative Central Office team who saw their plans blown badly off course by his intervention.

Mr Major is determined not to be deflected from his criticism of the Lib-Lab constitutional plans, to be discussed at a joint meeting tomorrow.

At a breakfast meeting with businessmen, Mr Major repeated his warnings about constitutional reform, claiming that "it will end in tears".

He told a business breakfast in Yorkshire: "The concept of tearing up our constitution by the roots - which is the essence of what the Labour Party and the Liberals are talking about - is thoroughly damaging and a huge distraction when we should be building on the economic opportunities that lie ahead."

John Prescott, Labour's Deputy Leader, was quick to point out that the close cooperation between the two sides did not mean they were heading for a coalition in which Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, would have a seat in a Blair cabinet.

Last night George Walden, Tory MP for Buckingham, came out in support of Labour's plans to reform the House of Lords and scrap the voting rights of hereditary peers. "I think it's going to be pretty difficult for Mr Major on the House of Lords to stand up, shining example of meritocracy as he is, and defend the aristocracy," he said.

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