LEADING ARTICLE : Truly blue and deeply disunited

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Could the Conservative Parliamentary Party really be set on "political suicide"? Michael Mates, the former Northern Ireland Security Minister, certainly seems to think so writing in the Mail on Sunday yesterday. With speculation growing about other potential defectors from the Tory backbenches, John Major's call for an end to internal squabbles on BBC television's Breakfast with Frost yesterday rang hollow. Just six months after he called a leadership campaign supposedly to unite the party, the internal bickering between the left and right wings is as virulent as ever.

We should hardly be surprised at the squabbling among the true blues. The Conservatives have always been a broad church - a coalition of two conflicting sets of views. To the left of the aisle sit the one-nation paternalists, to the right the market-obsessed nationalists. Throughout the history of the party the two wings have argued, compromised and taken their turn at dominating the Government. The different wings ought to be able to engage in constructive debate without unleashing howls and laments about "damaging internal splits".

However, the troubles that plague the Tories at the moment reflect more than just a healthy political difference of opinion. Where the leadership appears strong and in control, policy disagreements among underlings can be healthy and constructive. But voters feel uneasy when the direction at the top seems to waver in the wind, battered first by one faction and then by another. It is even worse if the fights take place in election years. When the factions appear far apart, people do not know what they are voting for. Who knows who will hold the reins of power inside the party in six months' time?

The second problem is that neither wing offers the electorate a persuasive alternative to Tony Blair. The right has plenty of ideas about cutting the welfare state and withdrawing from Europe, articulated most coherently by Norman Lamont in recent months. But its views are far from the centre of popular opinion and it lacks impressive leaders to carry it forwards.

The left of the party boasts a list of heavyweights including Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke and, when he returns from Hong Kong, Chris Patten. These members are guilty of failing to offer a robust enough defence against some of the lunacies of the right. The new Macleod group within the party, aiming to present proposals from the centre-right, is a welcome corrective and should hasten the launch of its first pamphlet. But the biggest problem for the Tory wets is Mr Blair: anything they want to say, Mr Blair says better.

Mr Clarke is closer on most policy issues to Mr Blair than to Michael Portillo. Only their history and traditions keep them apart. Emma Nicholson and Alan Howarth finally decided they had more in common with other parties than with their own colleagues. The future of the Conservative Party - both at and after the next election - will turn on whether it still has more to unite it than to divide it. And also on whether its members have a leader behind whom they are prepared to unite.

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