Leading Article: When bastards get you down . . .

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The Independent Online
THE CHOICE for the Prime Minister is simple but crucial: to appease his party's rebels, or oppose them. The leading advocate of appeasement is the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd. On Friday he referred to the rebels as a 'stalwart group' and suggested that the hatchet of old hostilities could be buried. Sir Edward Heath and the former Foreign Secretary, Lord Howe, disagreed. 'You can never appease these right-wingers, never, never, never . . .' Sir Edward said. He later called them a 'nasty clique', adding: 'We are going to get the majority of the party organised to continue with the European policy which has been ours since Churchill's time, and we are going to see it through.'

Lord Howe saw no future for John Major 'if he continues to seek compromise with a group of people for whom the word has no meaning'. Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer and convinced European, spoke prior to Thursday night's vote of removing the party whip from the rebels.

Mr Major's own personal feelings emerged unambiguously in his private remarks to Michael Brunson, of ITN, referring to the rebels - and by extension to their Cabinet sympathisers - as 'bastards'. Had it not been for them and the danger of splitting the party to smithereens, he could have done all those 'clever, decisive things' that people wanted him to do, he said.

Even by Mr Major's standards, that was a pretty limp excuse. After all, the Conservative Party has been divided over Europe ever since Harold Macmillan first applied for membership of the European Economic Community in 1961. So too has the Labour Party. But only under Mr Major's leadership has the division become so damaging. The reason is plain enough. Mr Major is an exceptionally weak leader. His instinct has been to manage. The rebels have been allowed to flourish when they should have been argued into a corner, mocked and shamed into line. Mr Major showed the smack of firm leadership by moving so decisively after Thursday night's defeat. Much more of the same steel is required.

Sir Edward Heath gave a clue to the right tactics when he spoke of getting the party 'organised' to continue with its traditional European policy. That would mean ensuring that the rebels are kept to a minimum on policy committees, and that their views do not deform the party platform for next year's elections to the European Parliament.

It was the predominance of the Thatcher tendency, with associated negative rhetoric about the undesirability of a diet of Brussels sprouts (and the like), that helped to destroy the Conservative vote at the last European elections in 1989, to the benefit of Labour and the Greens.

There was widespread agreement after those disastrous results that the confusions and divisions in the party must be ironed out - with what success, subsequent events have shown. We report today that Mr Hurd has been instructed to build a consensus around next year's European election manifesto. The results will be no less disastrous, and the effect on the party's reputation at home and abroad no less dire, if the Eurosceptics are allowed to call the tune. Mr Hurd should suppress his emollience, and Mr Major his naturally consensual style, in ensuring that the majority, pro- EC view prevails.