The anti-party group (to employ a phrase much used by Stalin) operates out of 17 Great College Street, a quiet, early 18th-century, residential road 100 yards from the Palace of Westminster. On one side is a terrace of four-storey, flat-fronted, red-brick houses, much favoured by the smarter and wealthier MPs. On the other is the massive medieval wall of the gardens of Westminster Abbey. Shelley once lived at No 17. Now it is among the most agreeable and convenient addresses in London for a political activist.
Even more agreeably, it is provided gratis by Lord McAlpine, the mildly eccentric multimillionaire whom Margaret Thatcher appointed Conservative Party treasurer in 1975.
Within this elegant house resides what must surely be the most audacious, elaborate and best-financed parliamentary campaign ever mounted by dissident Tory MPs still in receipt of their party's Whip.
Bill Cash MP, the patrician leader of the revolt in the House of Commons, insists: 'We are not a party within a party.' But he adds: 'There are some people (on the Conservative backbenches) I would not give information to.' And the group now has its own unofficial Whips, the Tory backbenchers James Cran and Christopher Gill, who liaise with opposition parties in periodic attempts to defeat their own government.
They also work closely with Lord Tebbit who, as Sir Edward Heath puts it, hovers 'in the lobby by the entrance to the chamber, grabbing people, trying to influence them' before crucial votes. Critics say this subversive presence so close to the chamber of the House of Commons is a gross breach of parliamentary etiquette.
Mr Cash rejects suggestions that his Whips work largely from within the Palace of Westminster merely to preserve the technical distinction between tolerable dissent and intolerable factionalism that could lead to an early withdrawal of the Conservative Whip. He likes to refer to them as 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, lurking behind the arras, waiting to be stabbed'. It is almost as if he were daring Mr Major to expel them from the party.
No 17 Great College Street has an unusual provenance that says much about the history of the deteriorating relationship between Mr Major and the Thatcherites. It was at her suggestion that No 17 was used as John Major's campaign headquarters during the succession struggle immediately after Thatcher's fall (Mr Major, remember, was then the chosen standard bearer of the Thatcherite cause.) Subsequently Lord McAlpine made the house available to Mrs Thatcher as a base for the first desolate months after her resignation. Mr Cash will not say whether it was Lady Thatcher who encouraged Lord McAlpine to offer hospitality to the anti-Major rebels.
The house has the feel of a chintzy, old-fashioned, upper-class, family home. The walls are panelled and bear an unlikely collection of old horseshoes, some good water-colours, gilt mirrors and the heads of assorted animals. But the antique china is shoved on to shelves and chunks of weathered statuary stand in the fireplace. Photocopiers, fax machines and desks bearing elaborate computers are everywhere.
The people who mostly occupy it are well-bred youngsters who, on closer inspection, turn out to be high- tech political activists. When I arrived in mid-morning, a cheery lady in pearls, twinset and horsey scarf offered a glass of 'perfectly bearable white' before introducing a number of fogeyish young men.
But the amateur, rather Sloaneish, feel is misleading. Take Sally Richard, who runs the operation. She says she is an interior decorator, who joined the team after considerable prayer about the future of the country. In reality she has been involved in the launch of a number of businesses. Or Jean Clark-Smith, who for many years was an executive secretary at the Bar Council. 'I then helped friends in business for a year or so but they went bust, so here I am filing for England.'
William Sitwell, 23, handles the media. He is an apparently laid-back Old Etonian, just back from a seven- month stint organising up-market tours of the Greek islands. 'I met Bill Cash at a garden party given by his daughter Letitia and because I'd had a bit too much to drink I found myself arguing with him about Europe. I was at a loose end so I called him up and offered to help out.' Only later do you learn that his father was a respected figure in financial public relations, that he has a good degree in politics and is regarded by political journalists as a sharp operator.
In the basement is a team of computer-wise young men whose task it is to plough through Hansard and organise the economic and legal research on which the operation rests. They have instant access to a national network of sympathetic QCs, economists and business advisers.
Upstairs Mr Cash, a constitutional and administrative lawyer with a formidable reputation, holds court in the elegant drawing room with views past the Abbey to the Palace of Westminster. His conversation is peppered with learned references to Charlemagne, Henry of Navarre and the Quadruple Alliance.
Mr Cash says the house is the sort of place where anonymous chaps from the City, banking, trade associations or the diplomatic world can - and apparently do - drop by discreetly for a chat. 'It is frightening that there are so many people in senior positions - former advisers to the Bank of England, the CBI and so forth - who support us but are not prepared to say so publicly. You have to ask yourself why.'
He insists he is running a shoestring operation, but adds that money is no object. Donors (who refuse to be named) chip in when required and the electronic wizardry has been lent by sympathetic business people. Most of his staff are unpaid. Mr Cash accepts that it would cost a fortune to duplicate No 17 as a commercial operation. 'I don't like turning volunteers away, but everybody who works here has to have a purpose and to be bloody good at it.'
He is proudest of the computer- printed briefing papers that are turned out every few days and circulated to 70 sympathetic Conservative MPs. They embrace both the policy implications of clauses in the Maastricht Bill and the tactical implications of defying Government Whips on particular votes.
In addition the rebels produce more comprehensive analyses. Recent documents have taken the Edinburgh summit apart, examined the implications of a common European citizenship and torn into the small print of the Social Chapter of Maastricht. Coming shortly is the rebels' detailed study of the economic implications of rejecting the treaty.
Most critics of the anti-Maastricht offensive concede that Mr Cash is operating personally at a high level of economic and constitutional rigour - although many of the anti-Maastricht clique in the Commons can seem chauvinistic and ill-informed. 'This campaign is politically necessary and technically clinical', according to Mr Cash. 'The arguments we offer have to reach the level of the best civil service, ministerial briefing material, or better, if we are to be effective' he says.
'Our weapons are facts,' he adds. 'Their weapons are innuendoes and smears.' Who, I ask, are they? 'Government ministers and other parts of the Euro-propaganda machine,' Mr Cash replies. Does he include Mr Major among those who hint and smear? Mr Cash does not answer directly. Instead he replies: 'I am a Conservative to my bootstraps, but the treaty is socialist. John got out of the ERM when the political landscape shifted. I will be content if we can so change the landscape that he abandons the treaty.'
The chances are that he is not
going to be granted his wish, but before the game is up, Mr Cash and his friends at No 17 will have run the Government practically into the ground.
TEBBIT TALKS OMINOUSLY OF THE PM's 'POLITICAL DESTRUCTION'
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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