Leading Article: Blood-letting in the Tory party

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CIVIL war is the most vicious type of conflict, in which opponents lose all mutual respect, perceiving one another as traitors. Past loyalties are obliterated as each side pursues its vendetta with single-minded purpose. Such is the character of the modern Conservative Party, stricken by division. Even as the party trails Labour by 24 points in the opinion polls, its factions are more concerned to engage in mortal combat with each other than to save the Government from the Opposition.

For the war of attrition within the party is not about the issues that disillusion the country: unemployment, recession and economic mismanagement. This is a conflict within an elite. After too many years in power its members have forgotten that electoral defeat is possible. So the left/right split is defined not by erstwhile debate over which policies will rescue the British economy. Rather, the fissure is over Europe, however many other guises it may take on.

Last week Tory skirmishes broke out over a European directive on a maximum working week. A few days before there had been a shift of forces as the Euro- sceptics lost control of the Treasury. This week Baroness Thatcher and Lord Tebbit will begin a fresh bombardment of the Government when the Maastricht legislation goes to the Lords for its second reading. Politicians belonging to the same party will rush into print and rubbish opponents or, more insidiously, will apply the knife in the back by speaking anonymously to lobby correspondents. Next month the battleground may be a different issue, but the factions will be the same, intent on wounding each other.

A mark of the crisis is that events are moving at an accelerating pace. Last month, even after the Newbury by-election disaster, the Prime Minister seemed safe until at least autumn 1994. Now no one can be sure that he will not be challenged this autumn. Instead of uniting behind the Prime Minister, the Conservatives become ever more fragmented. Backbenchers, blooded during the coup that toppled Margaret Thatcher, seem to like that taste of power. Indeed, they belong to a party which seems increasingly to think that it, not the electorate, has the task of picking prime ministers.

The depths of disloyalty to which the Tory factions will sink in this bitter war were once rare. For all the division which long characterised Labour, Messrs Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan never, while prime minister, faced defeat by their own party. These days, pro- Conservative newspapers, which stood behind Lady Thatcher even in her darkest hour, are writing John Major's obituary just a year after his election victory. Even the Prime Minister has begun to look ruthless in the way he sacrificed his Chancellor, Norman Lamont.

How will this civil war end? There are no signs of weariness on either side and blood-letting will not cleanse the party of conflict. The split would probably resurface with either Kenneth Clarke or Douglas Hurd at No 10. Defeat by the electorate, casting the Conservatives into an obscurity where they could sort themselves out, might eventually be the only route to resolution. However, Labour's experience of splintering and years in opposition should be due warning to those prepared to go down that road.

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