LORD TEBBIT, for the first time, is prepared to speculate publicly about the political 'destruction' of John Major - which he said would be 'immensely sad'. His remarks came during a broadside in which the former Conservative Party chairman told the Independent dismissively that expectations about Mr Major and his Government had been 'vastly too high' in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's overthrow.
Lord Tebbit claimed that most members of the Cabinet would now say privately that the Maastricht treaty would never be implemented. He called for a referendum on Maastricht and warned of violence in the streets unless the European Commission changed its ways.
Talking of Mr Major, Lord Tebbit said ominously: 'I like the man and would be enormously sad to see him hurt - especially as I was responsible in considerable part for John becoming leader.' He expressed little confidence in any of those who might reasonably hope to replace the Prime Minister.
'The Maastricht issue is the one causing the damage,' Lord Tebbit said. 'John Major has a divided party and the divisions are much greater than the (parliamentary voting) lists show. Most members of the Cabinet tell you privately 'We know it (the Maastricht treaty) is a lot of nonsense but it is our ticket to the top table. In any case, it will never be implemented'. This is not an honourable way to make policy.'
If the European Community remained on its present course, he predicted widespread violence of the type seen recently when Scottish fishermen, 'forbidden by Brussels directives from following their trade', destroyed imported Russian cargoes. They were, he said, 'decent, law-abiding folk driven to extreme action by Brussels because no democratic path existed for the redress of their grievances'. Other groups across Europe could expect to find themselves in similar situations. According to Lord Tebbit, future historians could well call the next few years the Time of the Eurotroubles.
A referendum would be one way out of the dilemma the Prime Minister had created: 'If the answer is Yes to Maastricht, at least it would have been the decision of the people to give away control of their own affairs. This would leave the political system intact and - of particular interest, one might have thought, to the Prime Minister - leave the Tory party intact.'
After a pause he added: 'You know, it might eventually occur to John Smith that a referendum would be the only way of leaving his party intact, too.'
Did Lord Tebbit regret going to the Lords instead of staying on as a senior backbencher to lead the anti- Maastricht campaign? 'It is perhaps unfortunate that we (Baroness Thatcher, Lord Ridley, Lord Parkinson and Lord Tebbit) all took the same step for different reasons. But I am more comfortable as a critic having excluded myself as a rival to John for the leadership. If he is destroyed, a member of his Cabinet would be the beneficiary. Not me. And not one of the Eurosceptics.'
Lord Tebbit felt the Major administration had to some extent been a victim of bad luck. 'Expectations were raised vastly too high in the early days.' There had been a haemmorhaging of talent, and the big figures of the Eighties had moved to the sidelines, from where they were shouting advice.
Lord Tebbit said it was hard to envisage a satisfactory replacement for Mr Major because the leading members of the current administration were either under heavy attack, like Norman Lamont and Michael Heseltine, or - with the possible exception of Kenneth Clarke - 'had not really arrived on the public scene'. He added with a chuckle: 'If I walked down the road with a Cabinet minister, people would be likely to ask 'Who is that with Lord Tebbit?' and not 'Who is that with a member of the Government?' This is not a healthy situation.'
The former Conservative chairman said that Mr Major's problems stemmed from a misunderstanding of why Lady Thatcher was overthrown. 'It was not because of her so-called negative attitude towards Europe. That was simply not true. She was overthrown because an unsustainable boom ended in high inflation and an ugly recession.
'John concluded, wrongly, that the heart of his policy had to be placing this country at the heart of Europe,' Lord Tebbit said. 'This was his Big Idea - not the party's and not as far as the mass of people of Britain were concerned.'
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