The Conservatives in Brighton: Tory faithful round on Lamont over recession

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The Independent Online
The anger and anxiety of the Conservative rank and file over the recession boiled over at Brighton yesterday with Norman Lamont being openly accused of kicking the party's small business supporters in the teeth, writes Stephen Goodwin.

Speaker after speaker in the economy debate appealed for a deep cut in interest rates and opposed any return to the European exchange rate mechanism.

Setting the tone, Patricia Morris, an unsuccessful general election candidate, said that it was the first duty of the Government to put British interests first. 'Of course we must co-operate as closely as possible with other countries in Europe and elsewhere, but we must not be driven by a hopelessly ambitious agenda pursued by others.'

Calling for a return to the policies of the 1980s, Mrs Morris compared membership of the ERM to a failed marriage. 'Ten wives at the same time understandably proved difficult for even the Bundesbank to keep satisfied. Thank God for the divorce.'

Exchange rate targets should be abandoned, Mrs Morris said. 'Lower interest rates are essential, not so that we can go out on a spending spree but so that decent businesses the length and breadth of this country can get on with what they know best, without having the bank manager constantly breathing down their necks.' She also wanted an independent Bank of England.

Andrew Tinney, a former chairman of the Young Conservatives, opposed any return to the ERM and called for a cut of 3 to 5 per cent in interest rates. Government spending had to be cut, including an end to mortgage interest tax relief, he said.

The strongest attack on the Chancellor came from Dee-Dee Dobell, a Yeovil councillor, who wanted an immediate interest- rate cut of 5 per cent. 'We appear to have lost our way in a fog. We appear to have no captain or navigator and . . . the purser isn't sure how he is going to finance the trip home.' Small businesses had tightened their belts and cut costs, but interest charges had 'been out of reality for far too long', she said. 'Mr Chancellor, people who run small businesses up and down the country are the heart and soul of the Conservative Party. They give their time, money and full support to our cause and you are kicking them in the teeth.'

Another councillor, Peter Slater, vice-chairman of Putney Tories, appealed for an interest- rate cut of at least 2 per cent and a switch in the direction of policy from cutting inflation to achieving growth. Pat Harvey, chairman of North Cornwall, said small businesses were 'bleeding to death'.

Stephen Hillier, treasurer of Cambridge Conservative Association, shifted the attack to the banks and their treatment of business customers. 'It's time we in this country ceased to be punished for the bad decisions made by the lending institutions,' he said.

Monica Drinkwater, chairman of Cheltenham Tories, spread blame around the banks, Labour leaders, the media and even, apparently, Baroness Thatcher. It was a time for national and party loyalty, she said. 'Our Chancellor and Prime Minister are having a difficult time trying to resolve our problems. They deserve no less than our wholehearted support.'

Philip Allott, an import-export trader from Harrogate, was jeered when he said that he favoured rejoining the ERM - the only representative to do so. In the past few days he had sent out three new price lists increasing the prices of imported products.

'No confidence will be created until the Government clarifies what our new economic policy is.' Describing the Chancellor as 'rudderless', Mr Allott said the Government could either give business a stable currency by rejoining the ERM or lower interest rates to American and Australian levels of around 6 per cent.

More to the conference's liking was the fiercely anti-Brussels speech of Mary Scanlon, of North- east Fife, who wanted Europe to embrace free trade, minimum interference and low taxation.

Winning a standing ovation with an echo of Margaret Thatcher's anti-federalist Bruges speech, she said: 'We don't need socialism through the back door. We need Conservatism through the front door.'