Put on your boxing gloves or else, Mr Major

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THESE were some of the most extraordinary scenes a Conservative conference has witnessed since the war. The Rhodesian debates of the late Sixties and rows over employment policy in the early Thatcher years were comparable in volume and venom. But never then did a grim, white-faced prime minister sit and listen to hundreds of grassroots Tories roaring in delirium as his central policy - the reason for him being in Number 10 - was verbally ripped apart. Never then was his assailant taken by half the conference into its embrace.

That all happened yesterday, when Thatcherite street theatre overwhelmed the party managers. For the Europhiles, Douglas Hurd saved the day with the speech of his life. After years of evasion and code, Europhobe and mandarin confronted one another openly, in public, speaking plain words, hotly and from

the heart. And note this: it was a good day for the Conservative Party and for the political culture, not a bad one. They needed to do this; we needed to hear them doing it.

The party has finally recognised something it never properly confronted before: the Government has changed. Two years ago, John Major came to power in a committee room off a Commons corridor. Then, in April and May, he established himself in the country. This week he is confronted by the need to prove to the Conservative Party - Her party - that he is its leader, too. By custom, these things occur in a different order. But never mind.

A large swathe of the party is unhappy about this new government. How large? The vote is a poor indicator, except of the hardest of the hard core, since it was deliberately designed to confuse the issues before conference. I thought about half the conference stood and ovated when Lord Tebbit moved through the hall, his face in a rictus of triumph and hands clenched like a deadly flyweight boxer. Mr Hurd thought it was rather less than half, perhaps a third. That is more reliable than the vote, but not much, since many people were probably carried away by the emotion of the moment. At any rate, it was a lot.

Mr Major looked pretty sick as he watched, and no wonder. Lord Tebbit mixed his blows with kind words, but the blows connected - as when he menacingly suggested it would be unwise for the Prime Minister to sack his Chancellor: 'After all, it wasn't Norman Lamont's decision to enter the ERM.' Arsenic does not become a health food by mixing it with a little honey.

Lord Tebbit, like Baroness Thatcher and the rest of the court in exile, does not matter much to Mr Major's Cabinet. They, at least, have broken the old bonds of respect and affection for what went before. But the Tebbit speech articulated a feverish anti-Maastricht sentiment among a large minority of representatives. At times it really did feel like an old Labour conference. When one speaker praised Mr Major's European policy as representing the Conservative Party's 'commonsense majority', there was a loud cry of 'bollocks]'

When a Birmingham doctor rebuked Mr Major for his remark about Euro-scepticism being froth and bubble because it 'denigrates our intelligence', there were sustained, approving cheers. Every time the television monitors picked up the disgusted-looking face of Sir Edward Heath, there were hisses and cries of 'traitor]' When another speaker described the European Parliament as an assembly 'of failed politicians living on fat salaries and huge expense accounts', the expressions of the Tory MEPs sitting on the platform were even more eloquent than the cheers from the conference floor.

Much of what fuels the anti-Maastricht movement is ugly. The cocktail quite clearly includes xenophobic anti-Germanism, sentimental nonsense about Britain's status in the world and populist nationalism. Other ingredients are more wholesome, such as a dogged belief that the British people have a right to decide for themselves. But there was a passion in the anti-Maastricht argument that Mr Major and Mr Hurd cannot ignore - can only confront. By contrast, many of the pro- Maastricht speakers sounded lame and tame. Mr Hurd, whose mental furniture undoubtedly includes Yeats, must have been thinking about the best lacking all conviction, and the worst being full of passionate intensity.

So if the debate cheered the anti-Maastricht camp, it produced mixed feelings on the platform. On the one hand, there was the enemy, and they were worth taking on and destroying. On the other, doing so might conceivably split the party. Mr Hurd is a man with historical sense and his warning about the way the Conservative Party had broken itself on the Corn Laws and tariff reform, exiling itself from power for a decade in each case, was meant to be dramatic.

The Foreign Secretary's contention that Maastricht is not a big issue of principle is not accepted by most of his party, on either side of the argument. But yesterday he demonstrated a plausible way forward for the Government, which can be summarised in his sentence: 'The Community should learn to do fewer things, better.' His ideas for greater openness at European Council meetings, for a bonfire of unnecessary European legislation and for legally enforceable subsidiarity rules are all ideas that 95 per cent of Conservatives could support.

So far, so good. What is much more worrying is the suspicion, which Mr Hurd has done nothing to refute, that a silent pact is being offered to the parliamentary Euro-rebels. It would say, in effect, that Britain will not re-enter the ERM. Monetary union, at least for Britain, will never happen. With its economic core stripped out, Maastricht is a pretty unimportant matter (old boy) and more benign than malign. So save the Prime Minister's face and vote it through. Such a pact, which some anti-Maastrichtians in government believe to be at the centre of the new strategy, would be foolish. It would place Britain about as far from the heart of Europe politically as the Chancellor's Shetland is geographically.

The dominant pro-European Cabinet ministers want Britain back in, and the best guess must be that Mr Major does, too. He is, after all, a European leader among European leaders. He knows that a failure to rejoin them as a full partner in the European project would make him, in every way, a lesser figure. So eventually he would have to break such a pact. The Tory conferences of 1993 or 1994 would be just as bloody as this one. If a no-ERM, no-EMU pact is meant seriously, then it is economically and politically daft. If it is not meant seriously, then it is merely a shabby and dishonest prevarication. Either way, it should be no part of the Major strategy. Let us hope it is not.

Better by far for Mr Major to take a leaf out of Lord Tebbit's manual of politics and attack head-on. He has not Lord Tebbit's theatricality, and many people like him the better for it. But as he sat, hunched and silent, he must have realised that he, too, will need on Friday to rise to the standard of Mr Hurd, and in a different way, Lord Tebbit. Later, he may need to sack junior ministers and further promote the pro-Europeans in the Cabinet. This is not yet Mr Major's party, nor Mr Major's conference. Clever party management will not make it so. Indeed, on yesterday's showing, clever party management is eventually self-destructive. Now only real leadership, decisive almost to the point of recklessness, can silence the Tebbit rebellion.