Tories aim to end leadership talk: Unity is the party line as the Conservative conference opens today

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The Conservative high command yesterday launched a concerted effort to bury the leadership issue at this week's conference, extend the hand of friendship to Baroness Thatcher, and unite the party against a 'malcontent minority' in its midst.

Last night, John Major told Conservative agents: 'We have got in the Conservative Party to pull ourselves together. We have to start this week at this conference.'

Despite continuing hostile rumblings from the Tory grass roots, particularly on the imposition of VAT on fuel, the two most senior figures at Conservative Central Office suggested that the conference would help the party to 'draw the line' under the past 12 turbulent months for the Government. John Major arrived in Blackpool saying he was looking forward to the conference. Entering the Imperial Hotel, the party conference headquarters, he brushed aside questions about his leadership and said: 'I think it is going to be an extremely good week. There is a great deal to talk about . . . We have a great deal to do so that we can persuade the people of this country of the plans we have to make their lives better.'

Sir Basil Feldman, chairman of the Conservative National Union, said that the mood was for a 'healing conference' and added: 'Constituencies are fed up with the disloyalty and negative messages put out by the malcontent minority.'

Sir Norman Fowler, party chairman, said the conference slogan 'Building for Recovery' concerned 'both the economic recovery' already under way, and 'the political recovery that we are now working for'.

Party business managers' hopes of a unifying conference were given a modest boost when Teresa Gorman, the Eurorebel MP for Billericay touted recently as a possible 'stalking horse' in a leadership contest, said it would be 'completely inappropriate' for John Major to be challenged this November.

The attempt to lift the mood also coincides with signs that the party hierarchy is anxious for a rapprochement with Lady Thatcher, who will sit on the platform during the economic debate.

The Prime Minister emphasised last night at his private meeting with agents that the changes achieved in the last 15 years were now at stake. He cited worries about law and order, standards in education and the fact that people under-rated the underlying strength of the economy as top priorities for the conference to address.

Although none of the 40 motions protesting against VAT on fuel has been selected for debate, Sir Basil assured reporters that the issue would be properly debated. Mrs Gorman yesterday said it was an 'open matter' whether she would join a Parliamentary rebellion against the tax.

Speaking at the launch of her book The Bastards, describing the battle in the party over Maastricht, she said it was 'impossible to answer' the question of whether Mr Major would lead the party into the next election.