Tory chairman pleads for peace: Colin Brown reports on a call for an end to party infighting

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WARRING factions in the Tory party were urged yesterday by Sir Norman Fowler, their chairman, to unite in attacking the opposition parties.

Sir Norman called on the party's associations to unite around the Tory campaign for the European elections and the local elections in May and June next year.

'It (is) time to go on the offensive again to attack socialists and Liberals in town halls, Westminster and Strasbourg with renewed confidence and restored unity,' he said in the September edition of Newsline, the Tory party newspaper.

His message followed the latest round of infighting in which Tristan Garel-Jones, a former Foreign minister, was accused by John Townend, a leading right-wing MP, of being behind the threatened purge of Thatch erites on backbench committees.

But the attempt to destroy the power of the Thatcherites on the committees in elections to the Tory committees in the autumn will go ahead in spite of Sir Norman's call.

John Major has avoided becoming directly involved, but the leadership believes the Thatcherite coup of key places on the executive of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers has changed its nature. It is no longer regarded as a sounding board for the mainstream of the party.

The leadership privately wants to see the executive become more 'in tune' with the party and would welcome the removal of key Thatcherites, who have rebelled against Mr Major's leadership on Maastricht. Their main target is Sir George Gardiner, the leader of the Thatcherite 92 Group.

The attempt to regain the overwhelming support of the 1922 executive could be used to forestall any threat by the senior Tory backbenchers to persuade Mr Major to step down, if the Tories lose heavily in the local and European elections.

The Conservative strategy for the next election is based on the hope that recovery will wipe out the feeling of betrayal among Tory supporters caused by the recession. The Prime Minister's office yesterday said an EC Gallup survey showed that consumer confidence was higher than at any time since the height of the boom in 1988.

Some leading Labour MPs privately fear the Tory support will swing back to the Government if recovery becomes established. They believe the pressure could switch from Mr Major to John Smith as Leader of the Opposition if Labour's surge in support begins to falter.

But Nicholas Winterton, another long-standing Tory critic of the Government, issued an industrial report questioning the claims of recovery. Mr Winterton, chairman of the Association of Manufacturing and Construction Industries, said: 'Growth is showing signs of flagging.'

Calling for a 2 per cent cut in interest rates, Mr Winterton, MP for Macclesfield, warned the Chancellor that the constant threat of raising taxes was holding back consumer demand.

Consumer confidence, page 39