A white-knuckle ride I cannot join

The Redwood camp looks like a small sectarian wing which will never unite the Tory party, argues Jerry Hayes
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There is an almost surreal feeling that the Government is in a state of catatonic trance, with ministers sleepwalking through their duties while the real centre of power has shifted to the tea-rooms, the terrace and the bars.

To many Conservative MPs, it is a sad perversion to see our party fast beginning to resemble a Greek tragedy without the jokes. There is something quite distasteful in watching angry young men with all the vigour and enthusiasm of a Faustian time-share salesman glad-handing colleagues they would not normally be seen dead with, and pouring poison into the ears of journalists whom they hardly know. They are the Prime Minister's enemies at work.

You can tell by the glint in their eyes that they are on a percentage - a yearning that if their man wins, they themselves may just be whisked off in an Austin Montego 1.3 ministerial limousine.

The Conservative Party is no different from Labour or the country - we are divided over Europe and we always will be. In many ways, we are a mirror-image of the electorate, of whom the overwhelming majority are neither Euro-sceptic nor Europhile, but, like John Major and mainstream conservatives, "Euro-cautious".

Yes, we stay at the heart of Europe, of nation-states. No, we don't want the United States of Europe and when we negotiate with our partners in the national interest we are careful that we sleep with one eye open and a revolver under the pillow.

That is what I believe the party wants, and also the people, when they bother to consider Europe, which is not all that often.

It is alien, therefore, to mainstream Conservatives to have our party hijacked for sectarian interests and one-issue politics by a tiny minority of Euro-sceptics who threaten further civil war unless their candidate wins. Under Margaret Thatcher and large majorities, these people would have been sidelined as rather quirky but harmless individuals and would certainly not be diverting valuable airtime from the bankruptcy of Labour policies.

Listening to the Redwood camp, one has an eerie sense of deja vu: Tony Benn in the Eighties. Remember the days when Tony used to proclaim that the reason Labour was being trounced in the polls was because it was not socialist enough? Remember the result - years in the political wilderness.

If we are not too careful the Disneyland of fundamentalist thinking will turn its back on mainstream Conservatism and the electorate, and turn us into the Marie Celeste of British politics. But at what a cost. We all know that the British people have no overwhelming desire to embrace socialism. The fact is they are just totally fed-up with us. Years of recession, negative equity and unemployment have made many natural Conservatives feel bitter, hurt and sometimes betrayed.

Yet even Radio 4's Today programme acknowledges our achievements: the lowest rate of inflation and interest rates in many years and an export- led recovery which has eluded chancellors for generations.

Our problem is the credibility gap: the electorate just does not believe us any more. And every time the Prime Minister sets out to explain and promote his achievements, he is sidetracked into some daft internal political cul-de-sac by one of the heroes of College Green, that media-milked patch of photogenic grass opposite the Houses of Parliament.

Almost all of my colleagues aredecent people who work hard for their constituents and get precious little recognition for it. They are confused and irritated by the abuse on the doorstep and the bewilderment of their supporters. If they have majorities of 10,000 or less, then they face the thought-concentrating possibility of political extinction.

The question, therefore, that we must all ask ourselves on Tuesday is who can win us back our seats and who has the ability to unite the party.

I have always found John Redwood thoughtful, intelligent and rather convivial. I sincerely hope that we can remain friends after the dust has settled. He has conducted a skilled campaign. Yet, being a thoughtful man, I suspect that in his heart of hearts he wishes some of his supporters who normally one wouldn't stand too close to when there's a full moon would just disappear. The trouble is they won't, and he knows it. He will be perceived to represent a small sectarian wing of the party with simple, fundamental policies popular to the minority but disturbing to the rest of us.

The trouble is, this perception is fast turning into a grim reality. Nobody can unite a party if the bedrock of their support is unrepresentative of mainstream Conservatism. To claim, as it has been, that the Redwood camp is gaining supporters by the day, is reminiscent of the average pre- election opinion poll.

Colleagues must not be deluded that an abstention on Tuesday will force the Prime Minister to resign and open up the challenge, because it won't. The sad fact is that the Redwood campaign has become almost Blairite in its reliance on soundbite rather than substance. Has nobody bothered to consider the consequences for Britain if we teeter on the brink of pulling out of Europe? What influence would we have in the day-to-day wheeler- dealing if we are just mere observers on the sidelines? Has anyone the vaguest idea how peace in Ulster can be sustained if the Gormanesque nightmare - of full integration into the UK and no talks on any terms with Sinn Fein - is realised?

The irony of all this is that, for the first time in years, the polls and the Prime Minister's personal rating are slowly moving in our favour. John Major is the only person who is making an attempt to unite the party with pragmatic "Euro-caution". He will not sell out to any faction. He will not be blackmailed. He wants to win another election and turn his guns on Labour.

Even opinion polls, unlike the last leadership election, clearly point to him and him alone being able to turn around the fortunes of the Conservative Party. Sadly, I have seen no evidence from the Redwood camp of consensus, conciliation or any attempt to unify and pacify the party. All I hear are the alarums of division.

I, and many like me, would find it hard to join John Redwood on a white knuckle ride to oblivion.

The writer is MP for Harlow.

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