MICHAEL Howard will today try to fuse his fractious Tory party into a political force capable of at least putting up a decent fight at the next election, as splits over Europe and public services threaten to undermine his leadership.
Even as Mr Howard and his aides were trying furiously to project the image of a united and harmonious party ahead of his conference speech today, two members of the shadow cabinet had a public dispute about the policies the Tories should stand on at the next election.
And there was more bad news for Mr Howard when an ICM poll for the BBC’s Newsnight showed 65 per cent of his own party did not think he would ever become prime minister. Among all voters, the figure rose to 78 per cent.
The latest split will do nothing to change that view. Sharing a platform at a fringe debate in Bournemouth, John Redwood, the shadow deregulation secretary, and David Cameron, the Tories’ policy chief, disagreed about whether Europe or public services should top the party’s agenda for next year’s vote.
Despite Mr Howard’s best efforts to bury the Tories’ divisive obsession with all things European, Mr Redwood appeared determined to make opposition to the European Union the party’s first priority. "Above all, we’re going to win by telling people the truth about Brussels and the EU - no to the European constitution, no to giving up the pound," he said.
But Mr Cameron, who will oversee the writing of the Tory manifesto, delivered a direct rebuke to the former Welsh secretary. "We don’t win by picking one single issue, whether it’s Europe or anything else, and talking about it incessantly," said Mr Cameron, a rising star, tipped by some as a future Tory leader. "If you don’t sound balanced, you won’t seem balanced."
He said the Tories had to focus on "schools, hospitals, crime - the things people talk about in the pubs and clubs. We mustn’t go off into wild forays into different areas".
Mr Redwood was clearly unconvinced and insisted any Conservative government would make a priority of renegotiating Britain’s EU membership. That process would "inevitably" lead to the United Kingdom becoming a less-than-full member of the Union, he said. "It’s inevitable - an incoming Conservative government will have been elected on a platform of less power to Brussels," he said, arguing that, by voting Tory, people would have said that "they cannot be a member of the latest version of the European Union".
Mr Redwood’s apparent enthusiasm for confrontation with the rest of the EU troubles some senior Tories, who fear Mr Howard could be led into re-running William Hague’s disastrous election campaign of 2001, when a hard-line, anti-European platform was soundly rejected by voters.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who is set to return to parliament at the election as MP for the safe Tory seat of Kensington and Chelsea, called for a more cautious approach to Europe, insisting any renegotiation of EU agreements could take place only "slowly".
Instead of Britain unilaterally withdrawing from treaties and laws, he said it should seek alliances with others who have doubts about some aspects of integration - such as Sweden and Denmark on the euro, or Ireland on defence policy. That, Sir Malcolm said, could create a "Europe la carte".
The debate about Europe was re-ignited by the Hartlepool by-election, where the Tories were beaten into a humiliating fourth place by the UK Independence Party. Some figures, such as Mr Redwood and Liam Fox, the party’s co-chairman, say they must woo UKIP voters with a tougher stance on Europe, while moderates such as Mr Cameron say it is more important to reach out to the middle ground.
As for Mr Howard, he will try to avoid the subject of the by-election in his speech. But
the attempt to sweep Hartlepool under the carpet was rather hampered by Sir Malcolm, who candidly referred to the outcome as "a disgraceful result and one which must worry us".