The Conservatives in Brighton: Fowler in crusade to heal divisions

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The Independent Online
SIR NORMAN Fowler attempted to heal the wounds inflicted by Baroness Thatcher and Lord Tebbit over Europe by telling the conference yesterday that it owed a debt of loyalty to John Major.

In an appeal for unity before the Prime Minister's keynote conference speech, the party chairman said: 'Six months ago, this very day, John Major gave us victory. That is the truth about the 1992 election and don't let anyone forget it. And in those circumstances, I don't think it's too much to ask that we give him our loyalty in return.'

Sir Norman, in a reference to the divisions over the Maastricht treaty which dominated the conference, said it had been a week of 'full and open debate. But let no one mistake the message of this conference is that we stand four- square behind John Major'.

The party chairman lifted the conference to its feet, waving Union flags, when he turned on television pundits and pollsters who had wrongly predicted a Tory defeat at the general election.

After winning the conference endorsement for Mr Major, Sir Norman, a former Times journalist, won a spontaneous standing ovation when he said: 'OK Mr Snow, Mr Dimbleby, Mr Redhead, we don't need a poll of polls to understand that.'

His crusading speech came at the end of a debate over criticism from grassroots supporters of the management of Conservative Central Office. Sir Norman has instituted a review and cost-cutting measures to reduce the pounds 10m overdraft which he inherited after the election from Chris Patten, his predecessor.

'The accounts up to the end of March show a deeply unsatisfactory position - an overdraft of over pounds 10m. That is the position we faced after the election. It took us a number of years to get into that position. We cannot take years to get out of it. We must not be in this position at the next election.'

He said he had already cut pounds 3m out of Central Office spending. 'But that is only one step. We need to eliminate the overdraft and we need to build up reserves.'

A chief executive is to be appointed for the first time to shake- up the party headquarters; Martin Saunders, on the board of P & O, has been appointed as director of finance and a new board of management will be set up to oversee the operation and draw support from councillors, volunteers, MPs and party professionals. A task force of agents will be appointed to spearhead support for the marginal constituencies. Sir Norman hinted that he intended to retain agents in marginals. He also set the party's sights on the county council elections next year, the district and London elections in 1994, and, with a sideswipe at the disastrous campaign in 1989, the European elections.

The unrest in the Tory grassroots about the waste of money by Central Office came to the surface during the debate, as speakers were heckled by supporters for more democratic control over the headquarters. Deirdre Holloway, of Beaconsfield Tories, defending Central Office, was jeered when she criticised the 'small group who tried to force violent change on our party'.