Schism, here we come!

You can see it in their eyes. They've got the fever. Behind the united roar from the hall, the Tories are bound for a split. Polly Toynbee seeks out the faithful to see if there is any salvation for a party gone mad
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The Prime Minister will make a brilliant speech today. Oh yes. In the hall they will cheer and stamp and stand up for a very long time. A party united, oh yes, yes!

He will get a very good press, for the press and broadcasters fall for it every year, swept away by the shifting hysteria in the frenetic conference atmosphere. First they predict divisive trouble on the conference floor, (as if!) and then they celebrate each "surprise" triumphal platform speech - Rifkind, Portillo and Clarke all got the treatment. Didn't they do well?

But you only need to know one thing: underneath all that, the Conservative Party has gone mad. You can see it in their eyes, all the symptoms of the deadly political plague called schism. I have seen it all before, been there before, done it myself, first in the old Labour Party, then in the SDP. For once schism takes hold of a party, it gallops through them like a flesh-eating bacterium. Can they save themselves now? Of course they could, but from the depth of their passion, I think not.

It is like watching lemmings running for the Bournemouth high cliff. They know where they are going and what they are doing but they can't stop themselves because it's all the other side's fault, never theirs. It's the other lot that started it. Who is to blame? They can all quote chapter and verse on who briefed or leaked first. In myriad overlapping fringe meetings on Europe, halls are packed to overflowing. Police had to be called to Bill Cash's to close the doors. Whatever happens in the well behaved "unity" conference hall, everywhere else the fever of schism is rife, a Gadarene stampede towards Euro-phobia.

No, not all of them are mad. But the sensible representatives are mainly very old and not all the old are sensible. Of course they all want to win, if only the other side would shut up. The aged heavily outnumber the rest, giving an impression of a pensioners' conference, but the sensible have lost any sway over the wild young bloods. The party is like one of those dysfunctional families they so love to castigate, like a bunch of grandparents dumped with badly behaved grandchildren who lack the discipline, self-control, respect or tolerance of their own young day.

I walked around the tables in the conference coffee lounge and talked to any representatives willing to speak to the press. Some hate the media too much to talk - a sure sign among political activists that all is not well. "You're not one of those traitors from the Telegraph?" hissed one.

Among a group in their early 30s was Mark Hughes, prospective candidate for Redditch, Mid Worcestershire, taking over from junior minister Eric Forth, who has fled a 4,000 majority on a chicken run to safer Bromley. So how does Hughes think they can win now? "Europe is the key to our fifth victory," he says instantly. I didn't raise the dread subject; he did. "Europe is what will win for us."

It will not be the economic boom, law and order, health, education or taxation, none of these bread-and-butter issues of everyday life. No, it is Europe, he says. "Goldsmith's pounds 20m campaign will make it the key election issue," he gloats, with relish for the fight. "When we lose the election we shall become a Euro-sceptic party within weeks. Our MPs in the next parliament will be far more Euro-sceptic. Why wait until we lose? Let's do it now and win!" The others, an agent from Runnymede and two women representatives from Cambridge, all agreed.

At a nearby table were some sensibles. Katherine Banks of SW Devon, an older pragmatist of Majorite persuasion, sighs about the Euro-row but gamely believes, "they will all come to their senses. It is a very good thing to have a debate." Her companion, Mike Halsall, a businessman from Southport, says: "I wish they'd shut up, both sides." His order books are bursting, he's taking on more workers and they should win the election in this economic climate. "But", he adds, "splits make for unpopularity."

Two couples in their sixties, who did not wish to be identified, raised Europe before I even sat down. "Our only hope now", said one, "is the Europe card. Now I'm not anti-Europe, don't get me wrong." The others joined in here warmly: no, no they are not anti-Europe, they go there for holidays - like people who say some of their best friends are Jews. "But if we said NO now to the single currency, NO to federalism, stand up for Britain, that would be the winning ticket!"

Queuing up for coffee, an elderly councillor, Dennis Birbeck of Sutton Coldfield, was wringing his hands. "People don't want to know about Europe out there on the doorstep. Us not-so-well-informed folk don't understand what it's all about. My voters never mention it, never!"

The clue to their mood is the dogs that do not bark. Like superannuated old Dobermans, the party can hardly croak out a feeble ruff-ruff at the postman any longer. They have lost their taste for their favourite old bones: even the law and order debate hardly wagged their tails. Nor did social security. Lilley and Howard were as listless as their audience, with only a couple of dry dog biscuits to throw them. The floor summoned up no blood-curdling howls for toe-nail extraction, chain-gangs or a return to the workhouse. Their hearts are not in it. Except, of course, when Howard and Lilley each slip Europe into their perorations. That got them going. Europe is the only show in town, spin as the doctors do.

One evening I wandered by mistake into a marquee to find a rowdy gathering of the National Association of Conservative Graduates. These are the slightly ageing bad boys and delinquents of the old abolished Conservative student federation. Mostly men, with a smattering of giggly Felicitys, among those stamping their feet to a Portillo rabble-rouser, I found a huddle of prospective candidates talking of the glorious future. Selected for no-hope seats in Jarrow, Easington, Wigan, Islwyn and Rother Valley, frankly, they didn't give a damn about winning this election. The future belongs to them. Their sights are all set on Next Time, in better seats - new leader, new party and very dangerous indeed. The thought of this lot trailing around the council estates of the North-east or Wales would be comical if it weren't so disgusting.

Europe is the only thing on their minds. "The time of the Euro-sceptics has come!" declares Easington. "Europe," says Jarrow, "is the issue I was selected on." Do they talk of nothing else on the Jarrow doorsteps? "Well, my Tory voters do." Islwyn chips in, "We're the Thatcher generation, working our way up the party. There's no stopping us now. We ARE the party." Rother Valley talks of his "cottage meetings" where Europe is raised. "There's no doubt," says Easington, "that the overwhelming mood of this conference and the country is Euro-sceptic."

The next night they gathered in black tie for the Young Conservatives' ball. "Young people everywhere back us!" they claimed. So among the Easingtons, Jarrows, Islwyns, Wigans and Rother Valleys and their plentiful ilk there was much dancing and champagne to be had at the conference. There was also the Conference Ball in Aid of the Marginal Seats - a needy cause indeed. As one observer remarked wryly of the deadlocked Congress of Vienna, "Le congres ne marche pas, mais il danse."

In the glory days the Tories' great talent was for beating in rhythm with the popular pulse. Labour was the party of isms while the Tories talked tabloid about mugging, porn, morals, old folk, scroungers, families and money in the pocket. For most people Europe is still just a big ism. It is what proportional representation is to the Lib Dems: when asked, people may agree it matters - but unprompted, they barely mention it. It is abstract and the divisions between factions far too arcane.

I sought out some Tory voters. In "The Encounter" coffee shop inside Beales, Bournemouth's department store, shoppers were taking their afternoon tea. I spoke to 10 groups of people, nearly all Tories, some now wavering, and I asked them what they thought the most important issues were. Health, education, tax, pensions, long-term care, sleaze - all kinds of issues emerged but no one mentioned Europe spontaneously.

Penelope Bull, a dental receptionist, was having tea with her husband Geoff. He works for the Ministry of Defence. "I've always voted Conservative," she said. "But I'm definitely wavering. They are too much for the rich and not for the middle like us. I think wealthy people should pay more tax. I'd pay more for education. The rich get richer, the poor poorer. I could never have voted for Kinnock, but I could vote for Blair."

Shirley Bickham, in her fifties, is an estate manager for an industrial park full of small businesses, a life-long Conservative. "They've done nothing for small business, especially late paying of bills and business rates. They are more for the fat cats." She won't vote Labour, though, because her step-son was at university with Tony Blair and does not speak well of him. Her older friend complained about VAT on fuel and the price of residential homes.

Eliza Castle of Edinburgh was having tea with Alice Williams - they were Wrens together in the war in Ceylon. Alice lives in Salisbury Cathedral Close, two doors down from Ted Heath. Both vote Conservative, but they are not very happy. Mrs Castle worries Labour might win. Why? "Sleaze, breaking the rules, that tells with the floating voter. Mind you, it would serve the voters right - they've forgotten what Labour is like!"

The Reverend Ralph Stanley Marshall and his wife Audrey were on holiday from their Sheffield evangelical church, Tory voters who fear Labour will win. Why? "They aren't talking about grass-roots things, like nurses and hospitals. They are the fat cats' party, too much corruption and too little integrity. Who can you trust?" Then he grumbles about lesbians and homosexuals, quoting Romans 1 on "that which is unseemly".

But no one mentioned Europe. No one. However, if the Euro-sceptics want to draw any comfort, once I mentioned it, they were almost all gut anti- Europeans. Some said, "I want out, absolutely", which is, of course, what the sceptics are saying, in easy-to-read code. No one was for a single currency.

The question is, if the Euro-sceptics had their wicked way and the party marched to their tune, could they transform Europe from a politicians' obsession into the number one issue in The Encounter coffee shop? I still think not. For even if a Union Jack election might play well with voters, the Tories cannot do it without a split, losing Clarke, Heseltine and others - and schism kills.