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POLITICS : Major Seeks Salve to Bind Up Tories' Wounds : British prime minister calls for patience at party's annual conference. But fractious elements highlight rifts.

October 15, 1994|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Prime Minister John Major, at the Tories' annual, weeklong conference, has painstakingly sought to bind up the wounds of his Conservative Party.

To a party accused of drift, incompetence and even sleaze--and under pressure from its right wing--Major called for "patience and realism . . . in a world of bewildering change."

"The party must stand for continuity and stability," he said in a low-key, reassuring speech at the seaside resort of Bournemouth.

With pledges to improve health, education and the economy, Major on Friday attempted to stake out the center ground where Tories have fought and won the last four national elections.

His party needs his ministrations: It has been bleeding badly after 15 years in office--and many of its wounds have been self-inflicted.

During this week of speeches, for instance, many Tories seemed to go out of their way to raise embarrassing issues, particularly the long-running argument over how close Britain's ties should be to the European Union.

Earlier in the week, Michael Portillo, a Cabinet minister and the party's leading right-winger, warned of the dangers of getting too close to Europe. Portillo, 41, was rewarded with the conference's most enthusiastic response, a reception once reserved for that conservative icon, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Portillo's performance overshadowed those of party moderates such as Trade Secretary Michael Heseltine, a former conference darling, and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. They both insisted that Britain should be "at the heart of Europe."

The Tory sessions came on the heels of a glitzy Labor Party conference last week--at which Tony Blair, the most appealing Labor leader in 20 years, sought successfully to weld together the center and left wings of his party.

Labor's apparently successful conference week left them far ahead of Conservatives in public opinion polls.

This left the stage set for a week of Tory reconciliation and healing. Instead, the fractious elements of the party rose up.

The conference received a shock on the first day with the appearance of Thatcher, who looked pale and drawn. She ignored media questions about the ethics of her son Mark Thatcher, accused by Labor members of Parliament of having made more than $18 million in commissions on an arms deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia. Thatcher was not scheduled to speak and left after her brief appearance.

Later in the week, Norman Lamont, the former chancellor of the exchequer, made a bitterly anti-European speech, which seemed to tap deep sentiments in the party's right wing. Then Portillo and other ultraconservatives called for a sharp differentiation between Tory and Labor policies--the establishment of "clear blue water" between the parties.

But this seemed to draw the party to the right, rather than the center, where the most votes are. And that prompted Kenneth Clarke, a centrist and chancellor of the exchequer, to assert that Portillo and his allies were using, in their "blue water" reference, "an almost meaningless cliche."

"The idea that the party starts marching off to the right wing because Tony Blair is muscling in on it," Clarke said, "is slightly laughable."

Geoffrey Howe, a former foreign secretary and now a member of the House of Lords, also objected, declaring that "establishing as much 'clear blue water' as possible between ourselves and Labor is the Pavlovian response of a party on a suicide mission." He warned that the Tories face a decade out of power and in opposition if they "lurch to the right."

Besides the ideological slugfest, the Tory conference was marred by newspaper photographs of drunken party-goers at the Young Conservatives' Ball--a session at which speakers more than once assailed the antics of the drinking-class "yob culture."

But Major wound up the overall conference, co-opting the center, declaring of the right's demand for radical, conservative reforms: "Change for the sake of change should never appeal to any Conservative." He asserted that Labor, under Blair, was merely adopting Tory policies.

Despite his speech, Conservatives hardly presented a picture of unity in confronting the serious challenge of revived Labor.

If there were solaces for Major, however, one would be that his authority over the party was no longer questioned, as it was last year. Further, the cease-fire in Northern Ireland is seen by many as directly attributable to his long, hard efforts to find a solution to the 25 years of violence in the province.

Major can also take heart that he does not have to call an election until spring, 1997--giving the economy a chance to recover and allowing renewed hopes for the now-flagging Conservatives.

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