LEADING ARTICLE : Tory tonic is poison

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So the newspaper that brought us fantasy football has turned its attention to fantasy politics. Yesterday the Daily Telegraph finally exploded with rage and frustration at the failures of John Major's government, dismissing it as an unqualified disaster and calling for a crusade against Brussels, combined with ''bold'' tax and spending cuts. It accused ministers of lying about Europe and demanded that they accept that membership of a European currency would be an ''act of national betrayal''. It is not hard to see whose programme the paper has signed up to: its outraged rhetoric was strongly flavoured by the politics of John Redwood. The once-loyal ''Torygraph'' has joined the dissident right.

Things have come to a pretty pass when the Independent is obliged to defend a Conservative prime minister against the Daily Telegraph. We have never been ardent admirers of Mr Major: in criticising his style of leadership our Tory neighbours at Canary Wharf are following a line of argument developed here for several years. But he is the only credible Tory leader until the election, and his strategy of slogging on is vastly more sensible than the wheeze for a Tory revival presented to readers of the Telegraph. Its editors have prided themselves on their stolid, tweedy calm. They seem to be panicking.

Their bold tax cuts are all very well: but to promise tax-cutting is hot air unless youspecify how you will cut spending. Just as Labour spending plans need to be tax-costed, so Tory tax cuts need to be spending-costed. But as so often, the suggestion for tax-cutting is chucked into the final paragraph of a hand-wringing article for rhetorical effect. Norman Lamont has suggested cutting means-tested benefits and introducing charges for health care. If the Tory right wants to go into the next election offering ''clear blue water'' in the form of tax cuts, let them describe similar measures. Thus far, they dare not.

On the European Union, the Telegraph, like the Tory dissenters, comes very close to advocating withdrawal. There is an economic case for a looser relationship with the EU. But for Major to move that way now, beginning by ruling out forever British membership of the single currency - no matter how well it was working for the states within it - would destroy this government almost immediately.

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, would certainly resign, followed by other ministers. A phalanx of infuriated Conservative backbenchers from the pro-European wing of the party would refuse to support Major in a confidence vote in these circumstances. Thus the programme offered by the Daily Telegraph as the Tory tonic would prove an almost instant political poison for the Tory administration. It might well be good for the country; but only if you think that what the country needs is Tony Blair as Prime Minister as soon as possible. We can only commiserate with Mr Major that his friends show such little judgement.

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