The Government in Crisis: Tory outcry hinges on calls for leadership: As John Major and his government come under increasing criticism of their policies from once stalwart voters, Anthony Bevins gauges the mood of Conservative MPs

MANY senior Tory backbenchers, with decades of political experience behind them, have never seen such deep divisions within their party, with rank-and-file resignations and an avalanche of abusive letters from people saying they are ashamed of having voted Conservative six months ago.

'No one of my generation or before can recall a situation like this, apart from Suez,' one pro-Maastricht Tory MP said yesterday. 'But that was a single issue. Maastricht is mixed up with all sorts of other bungles, economic and otherwise.'

The comparison with Suez, the Tory split that it generated, Anthony Eden's humiliating withdrawal and subsequent resignation, is increasingly being drawn by some of John Major's hapless supporters at Westminster.

One senior Cabinet source begged to differ on that nominated precedent this week. He said Suez had been about Britain's past, while Maastricht was critical to the country's future. From that there could be no retreat.

He also said Eden had been a sick man at the time, suggesting that there was nothing wrong with Mr Major's health - in spite of John Prescott's weekend statement that the Prime Minister had 'lost his marbles'. But it is not the lack of marbles that is currently distressing the hitherto loyal gentlefolk in the blue-rinse Tory shires of the South.

Another pro-Maastricht Tory backbencher - one of the brave nine who spoke in support of an early ratification of the treaty in the right-wing lion's den of the 92 Group meeting on Monday - said the common strand of complaint among his constituents' letters was that Mr Major and his government were 'rudderless'.

'People have been tearing up their party membership cards, and although my association officers are very robust, we would find it very difficult to find anyone to work for us in an election at the moment. And there would certainly be a lack of financial support,' he said.

One younger backbencher said he had every reason to support the Prime Minister because he would not have been returned to Westminster without Mr Major's leadership during the election. But he added that he and his party association desperately wanted him to reassert that same leadership now.

'I have had a handful of party resignations, and letters from supporters who are ashamed of voting for me in April. But what is now needed is a sense of direction,' he said. Referring to the perplexing and repeated government U-turns of recent weeks, he said: 'It is like terrorism. We have caved in once too often, and if we don't stand firm now, we are going to be held to ransom for the next four years.'

But while MPs' postal bundles have exploded to the point at which some are no longer able to keep up, some MPs insist that Maastricht does not figure large - yet. There are strong indications that the business community wants the treaty ratification process to be restarted, because current uncertainty is weakening the pound, and the single market looms, but one MP said: 'The hostile letters I am getting on Maastricht are coming from the same bunch of people.'

A senior MP said: 'I have not had one letter on Maastricht. But I did have 350 letters in three days on the pits; highly critical, mostly from Conservatives, and the more right-wing they were, the more angry they were. Chaps who've probably never met a miner in their lives were positively apoplectic.'

He suspected, however, that the torrential tirade had been prompted by issues that were much closer to home. 'They find that their houses have lost value, that their sons are unemployed, and that their businesses are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. There is a great loss of confidence in John Major,' he added. 'They feel he is not up to the job.'

Another southern MP said his mailbag was normally restricted to the bread-and-butter issues; abortion, smoking and dogs. But the pits closure programme had triggered the largest number of letters he had known for more than 20 years. 'And my agent has now warned me that I can expect a new crescendo on Maastricht.'

He estimated that four in five of his 'selectorate', the party activists, were against Maastricht 'from the guts downards', although that did not reflect the view of his Tory electorate.

That MP said he would vote for resumption of the Maastricht legislation, but he feared it might be 'the right thing at the wrong time' - that the Government had not persuaded the public of the argument. 'Public opinion has to be brought alongside,' he warned. 'But I would not vote against the Government on it. The issue is too important to nit-pick.'

He also echoed his colleague's view about the need for the Prime Minister to take a firm line with the party's backbench 'terrorists', saying Mr Major should withdraw the party whip from some of his more extreme backbench opponents. 'They are the worst sort of English nationalists,' he said. 'I am worried stiff by some of the trends that I am seeing.'

He cited recent attempts to give some kind of intellectual respectability to illiberalism, and the 'fascist breeding ground' of recession. 'Put that together with the nature of our Conservative right-wing, and I am very concerned,' he said. 'Just recall the audience shots of the Conservative Party conference; those crew-cut, sweat-shirted louts looking for all the world like the National Front.

'If we were to make an example of one of my colleagues here in the Commons, withdrawing the whip, it would serve notice on the ditherers who are currently being led by the nose.'

But while some MPs look for extreme answers to historically extreme party problems, the debilitation of the party continued apace yesterday. One northern MP said he had just retreated from his mailbag. 'They are saying we are incompetent, useless; you name it, they're saying it. And these are from our own people . . ,' he said.

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