The European Elections: Threat of Tory civil war fades amid relief - Drop in support for Lib Dems stems panic and takes the heat off Major

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The Independent Online
THE EUROPEAN election defeats yesterday caused sniping between the Europhobes and the Europhiles. But the threat of civil war in the Conservative Party was overwhelmed by the widespread feeling of relief among Tory MPs that the losses were not worse.

The main cause of their relief was the fall in support for the Liberal Democrats, who had been threatening to sweep them out of their heartlands in the South.

Party strategists said the Labour Party presented an easier target to hit at the next general election campaign. 'Labour is a much less slippery beast than the squashy Liberal Democrats,' said one Tory party source.

The failure of the Liberal Democrats to claim more seats from the Tories and the fall in their support to 16 per cent of the vote stemmed the threat of panic in the Tory ranks and took much of the heat off John Major.

There was a call for the Prime Minister to resign by William Powell, a former aide to Michael Heseltine, but he was in a minority. It was dismissed as a 'absurd' and 'an eccentric suggestion' by Sir Norman Fowler, the Tory party chairman.

While the threat to Mr Major may return, there was no mood in the party for an early leadership election.

Right-wing Tory MPs insisted that the lesson to be learnt from the election was the need to return to Thatcherite principles, particularly over taxation, which had lost the Tories votes.

Led by Sir George Gardiner, chairman of the right-wing 92 Group, the right wing united in calling on Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, to cut taxes.

Edward Leigh, a former minister sacked by Mr Major over his opposition to the Maastricht treaty, said: 'Tax cuts - that is the only way we can restore our popularity.' That led to a warning against 'gimmicks' from the left of the party by Ian Taylor, a leading member of the Positive European group.

'If we start to talk about tax cuts, the financial markets will fear the Government has lost its way and we will have a much sharper increase in interest rates than might otherwise be necessary. Retribution will come if we start trying to get involved in short-term populism.'

Many Tory MPs were looking to a wholescale reshuffle of the Government in July to lift the Conservative Party out of the trough of defeat in the European elections.

Sir Edward Heath, the former Conservative Prime Minister, led the calls for Mr Major to sack ministers from the Cabinet who were 'not up to their job - they are some of the people who are most anti-Europe'.

After Tory party leaders reviewed the results at Number 12 Downing Street, a party source said: 'There was a mixture of relief that we got higher than our seat projections combined with astonishment that the Liberals did so badly. The fact they got only 16 per cent of the vote means they have gone seriously backwards since the local elections, and backwards since the general elections.'

Labour is targeting a string of Tory seats in the South with majorities of less than 5,000 votes, from Dover to Plymouth, where they came second at the last general election. David Shaw, the MP for Dover, and Simon Coombs, the Tory MP for Swindon, were both defiant about their chances of holding on to their seats.

When Tory MPs gather at Westminster today, for the first time since the elections began, the whips will be able to report that backbench morale is holding reasonably well in the face of a potentially disastrous set of election results.