Conservatives Squabble As British Election Nears

Dither over Europe could sink ruling party

With 10 days to go before the British general election, the ruling Conservative Party appears to be at a crossroads - and a fractious crossroads at that.

Prime Minister John Major told the London Times yesterday that although he expected to win the election, if Labour leader Tony Blair "were prime minister and he asked my advice about how to handle European negotiations, he could have it in complete privacy and in complete frankness."

His comment fueled a widespread and growing impression among politicians and analysts that after 18 years in power the ruling Conservative Party is preparing for a loss and a period as the opposition party.

That impression was magnified by a rash of apparently uncontrolled public feuding among senior Conservatives, centered on European issues.

Peter Mandelson, a leading figure in the campaign of the rival Labour Party, says divisions in the ranks of Conservatives were best exemplified by reactions to what he called a "puerile" political advertisement placed by the Conservative Party in nationally circulating newspapers last week.

The full-page advertisement was a retouched photograph of a pint-sized Mr. Blair sitting on the knee of Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It depicted Blair as a ventriloquist's dummy and carried the caption: "You don't send a boy to do a man's job."

The advertisement, Mr. Mandelson says, was "pathetic in the extreme." He claims it "immediately reignited divisions among top Conservatives."

Former Conservative Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath and former Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe both denounced the advertisement.

Sir Edward called it "foolish" and "insulting to Chancellor Kohl." Mr. Howe attacked it as "damaging," and said that in approving it, Mr. Major had "gone against his own natural instincts."

But Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine defended the ad and confirmed that he had personally created it.

"I sketched it on the back of an envelope," he said. "It is a perfectly proper image of what would happen if Tony Blair led Britain."

Open feuding among senior Conservatives began to escalate April 14 when Major, at a news conference, threw away his prepared notes and made an impromptu appeal to his party's candidates, and to rank-and-file Conservatives, to "trust me on Europe."

Major urged them to accept his "wait and see" policy on a single European currency as "the best strategy for Britain."

"Do not bind my hands," he pleaded.

But by then, some 230 of the more than 600 Conservative candidates in the election had urged voters in their constituencies to discount Major's "wait and see" approach.

In a statement typical of the growing Conservative mood on Europe, Crispin Blunt, a Tory candidate and former special adviser to Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, told voters Sunday: "I am content that Britain will not join a single currency under the Conservatives."

Three of the candidates who opposed the government's official wait-and-see approach are serving as government ministers. When Major said he was not going to fire them, Blair accused the prime minister of being "weak and indecisive."

In a speech in Manchester yesterday, Blair renewed the attack, claiming: "There are now two Tory parties, and John Major is leading neither of them."

Analysts in newspapers that normally back the Conservative Party say Europe has become a defining issue in the election campaign. They also tend to agree that dissension in Conservative ranks suggests that a battle to succeed Major as party leader has already begun.

London's Daily Telegraph yesterday reported a Gallup Poll showing Labour 16 points ahead of the Tories. Other polls are reporting Labour's lead at around 20 points.

Telegraph political editor George Jones says the Conservatives are on the verge of "a decisive shift toward Euroskepticism in the next Parliament." There had been an "overwhelming rejection" by Conservative candidates of Major's stance on a single currency.

Over the weekend, two Tory heavyweights added to the impression of a ruling party in disarray, expressed sharply opposing views on Europe.

Home Secretary Michael Howard, reckoned to be a Euroskeptic, said next June's European Union summit in Amsterdam "threatens Britain's survival as a nation-state." Asked whether he agreed with Mr. Howard, Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke said, "No, I don't."

Blair then stepped in on Sunday and declared, "Judge John Major by the way he has run the Conservative Party. Eleven days before the election, it is in a state of civil war."

In a further sign of confidence that it would win on May 1, Labour announced yesterday that starting Wednesday, it would scrap the traditional red of its campaign backdrops and election materials for rich purple - a color once favored by Roman emperors and popes.

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