Public calm hides Tory fears over elections: Annual meeting of the Conservative Central Council: Donald Macintyre finds representatives in subdued mood for electoral challenges

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The Independent Online
IN PUBLIC, the 500 or so constituency activists who had gathered by lunchtime yesterday in Plymouth remained, if not ebullient, at least optimistic and loyal. In private, some were surprisingly willing to share their foreboding that a rout in the council, European and Eastleigh elections could yet precipitate a leadership crisis in the summer.

Typical of the loyalist view was Sylvia Russell, who lost her county council seat last year to a Liberal Democrat. She is 'totally behind John Major and Douglas Hurd on their view that we should not compromise on the (European) voting issue'.

That may be an exaggerated view about the degree of inflexibility Mr Major is exhibiting, but she is adamant that the Prime Minister has proved to be a lot tougher than anyone thought. 'Anyone else would have buckled under the pressure he's been under. He's a man of principle.'

Understandably, perhaps, the mood in the bars and corridors outside the conference hall in the Plymouth Pavilions was subdued. Even the ultra- loyalists were muted. Peggy Hart, from South Hams in Devon, said: 'We're all optimists. When people see what the Liberal Democrat councils have done, they will come back to us.'

One representative echoed the age-old complaint of activists during mid-term doldrums, that the party was 'not getting its message across'. She was convinced that the leadership would become an issue after June. 'People won't say anything publicly now because it hasn't got to the stage it did when Margaret Thatcher became a liability. But it will. The rumblings are there.'

The same speaker, however, made the point - borne out in the polls - that it does not follow that a change of leader would transform the fortunes of the party as opponents of Baroness Thatcher believed in 1990. The point is an implicit acknowledgement that the problems may run deeper even than the leadership. 'People are saying on the doorsteps: 'John Major, oh yes, he's a nice chap. I've been a Conservative voter for 20 years and I'm not voting for you this time'.'

A Midland delegate added that leadership was not merely a matter of the leader himself, maintaining that Conservative Central Office had been complacent and behaving 'as if it was the Civil Service. We're not being political enough. And we're not getting our message across'.

Nevertheless, from behind the convenient cloak of anonymity - itself a sign that unrest about the leadership has not yet reached critical mass - more than one Tory yesterday admitted an expectation of a leadership crisis after the local and European elections, and in the by-election which is intensifying Tory fears about the next few months.

One admitted: 'I'm down to go to Eastleigh, and I know we're going to get massacred.'

Mr Major will today confront an audience willing him to help them still their own doubts. Delegates want to believe that the party will recover as dramatically as it has from previous nadirs. But they are no longer as sure as they would like to be.