The Conservatives in Brighton: On the rocks at Brighton: What a swell Party it is] William Leith monitors mutiny in the ranks as the Conservative showboat careers out of control

On Wednesday night I bumped into a man in a back street, and he told me, swearing: 'they've got no ***** idea, no ***** economic policy.' A man? This was a former minister . . . Was it then that I realised the full extent of the Government's troubles? Or was it on Friday afternoon, during John Major's speech, when he mentioned Maastricht, his big thing, and the hall filled with hisses? With hisses? The Prime Minister talking about his most important policy, in his keynote speech and he gets hissed at? By his own party? In public? You should have heard what they were saying in private.

The place was full of sniffer- dogs. You could tell when a cabinet minister was about to enter your restaurant; they were preceded by men in black plastic suits with Alsatians. And you couldn't go anywhere without being searched thoroughly, people poking around your trousers with explosive-detection devices, checking your palms for traces of Semtex, making you undo your jacket and take the lens cap off your camera. I was snatched from the conference floor on Friday, and I asked the security guard what he was looking for in my bag. He said: 'Anything. You could have a bucket of water in there.'

Pro-Maastricht people were accusing the antis of being thugs, fascists, little Englanders. The antis were yelling 'Socialist scum] Join the Liberal Party]'. They were enjoying themselves much more. Their key word was 'sound'. People would chat to each other, looking for clues, and say: 'You're reading the Daily Telegraph - you must be sound.' When Margaret Thatcher arrived, having called Mr Major's Maastricht treaty a 'ruinous straitjacket,' the antis really got going. One Young Conservative, bearded, badge-covered, told me: 'Central Office couldn't find its arse with both hands and a map.' Another said: 'The Cabinet are talking airy-fairy nonsense. They sound like Gordon Brown.'

For politicians, it was the ultimate test. Can you talk your way out of this kind of mess? I asked Lord Whitelaw about the rift between Major and Thatcher. He looked down at me quizzically and said: 'They have the same position.'

'How do you mean?'

'They want the same things. They want to see the success of our country. They want to see us prosper.' He looked at me as if I was missing a crucial fact, as if I was too thick to see what was going on. David Amess, MP for Basildon, went even further. His tactic was to make a virtue out of all the squabbles. 'We've had a very, very healthy debate,' he told me, with an incredibly wide grin. 'Far better than the Labour one last week. Basildon loves Margaret Thatcher. And Basildon loves John Major. One's a man, one's a woman. We're not for or against either - we love them both.'

The really important politicians hung around the lobby of the Grand Hotel. You could guess at who they were from a distance, by the size of the camera- toting mob around them. A large, slow-moving scrum creeping out of the dining room? It was Ted Heath, wearing a dark suit and Clarks' Polyveldt shoes. I asked him if he would give me his opinion on Mrs Thatcher. He looked at me, shook his big head once, hard, and said, in a loud, braying voice: 'No]' That was it.

Virginia Bottomley was charming. Could I talk to her for a couple of minutes? She said she'd talk to me while she was walking along. I asked her what she thought of all the 'lively debate'. She said, smiling a bit: 'The Conservative Party is alive. It's a good party. Everyone's behind the Prime Minister.' This was palpably not true, and she said it as if she didn't quite believe it, in the tone of voice that an adult uses to a child who's harping on some sordid detail best left alone. Her tone was patient and a little sharp.

'You think it's good, this open debate?'

Mrs Bottomley rolled her eyes. Did I have to ask her about this? She said: 'I think it shows there's a lot of . . . energy.' She moved through the next door slightly faster, emanating an aura of unease, putting static between us.

Moments later, I bumped into Norman Lamont. He'd just delivered his speech. He looked terrible, squirming and worried, a glow of sweat on his face.

'Mr Lamont, how do you feel about your speech?'

The Chancellor flinched his head in mock disgust, as if the question was absurd, and did it so convincingly that I began to wonder: had I actually blurted out something obscene? He said: 'Sorry]' in an aggressive, hurt tone, cutting me off, raising his shoulder as he pulled his frightened-looking face away. He could have said anything: 'fine]' or 'great' or 'wonderful'. But he could not bear one more moment of this, and he scuttled away, up the stairs of the Grand Hotel.

There was a loud noise in the conference centre, the sound of a crowd panicking. Then bright flashes of light from down the corridor - what was this? Violence? Terrorism? The mob forced its way through the door, a braying, rippling snake, engulfing and trampling people in its way. At the centre was the Prime Minister. He was nodding. When he turned to the left, people at the edge were forced to run three yards, wielding microphone booms like staves.

In the scrum, security guards with yellow and black tape were keeping a cordon around Mr Major. At one point, the mob engulfed an elderly woman, who lost her footing. She went: 'Aaah]' and disappeared. Somebody shouted: 'There's an old woman in there, for God's sake]'. I was whacked on the leg by a chair and got a jab in the stomach, the old woman was slipping under, and John Major, six feet away, was nodding and nodding, oblivious.

On Wednesday night I attended a fringe meeting: Young Conservatives Against a Federal Europe. The speaker, Chris Gill MP, started his robust speech: 'We've been in the EC for quite some time now.' Several people yelled: 'Too long]' You could tell this was going to be good. Then the microphone broke down. Gill said: 'Is it the dirty tricks department?' Someone shouted: 'Michael Heseltine]' Gill said: 'The Government is very disingenuous at the present time. What are Britain's interests? Two things - peace and prosperity . . .' From the floor: 'And freedom]'

Gill: 'Yes - and freedom]' Gill built up the momentum, explaining how terrible the Maastricht treaty was. Not only will it tangle up the economy - it will lead to anarchy, because we won't respect laws visited on us by foreigners. Every time Jacques Delors was mentioned, the whole floor hissed like a pantomime audience. When Douglas Hurd or Michael Heseltine were mentioned, people shouted: 'Scum]' Gill said: 'There's a Government whip sitting behind this pillar.' There were shouts of: 'Show yourself] Scum]' Gill was building up to a climax. He said: 'It risks splitting the party] And the blame for that I put fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the Government] It is unnecessary and it is unwanted . . . this Socialist treaty] It is a Socialist treaty]'

Then Gill mentioned 'the Tory Reform Group, who are going off for their dinner. . .' These were the pro-Maastricht people. There were yells of: 'Scumbags]' A man with a beard said: 'Excuse me - I am a member of this party and I will not be called scum]' Two minutes later, a man putting a question to the platform pointed his finger at the bearded man and said: 'And you, sir, are a scumbag, because I've met you]'

On Friday, in the main auditorium before John Major's speech, everybody was wearing baseball caps or plastic Union Jack caps, which, for the first time this year, were distributed free. A Mexican wave started. When it reached the platform, the Cabinet rose and raised their arms with varying degrees of enthusiasm, Michael Heseltine looking awkward but making a good show of it, Douglas Hurd looking as if he was worried his trousers might fall down. Then there was a comic video show, with Gordon Brown's face on the huge screen, saying: 'They've lost the election. They've lost the election. They've lost the election,' his voice scratch-mixed on a loop. Major made his speech, in which he said: 'We must make a climate in which we know the difference between right and wrong]'

Afterwards, I asked a cabinet minister what he thought of Major's speech. 'I thought it had balls,' he said. 'He came across as John Bloke from next door.' I took my notebook out. 'You're not quoting me]' he said. 'If I thought you were going to quote me, I'd have put it differently] That's unethical.'

At the end, Kenneth Clarke said: 'I don't want to say any more. My voice has gone.' John Gummer told me everything had gone 'really well'. A Japanese observer said: 'all this talk about the economy - but surely the main thing is the diligence of your people to produce something people abroad will want to buy.' Then the Party waved their flags to 'Land of Hope and Glory'.

(Photograph omitted)

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