Gummer tells Tories - grow up

GROW up, support the leader, and stop damaging the party – that's the uncompromising message to plotting Conservatives from one of East Anglia's most respected and senior MPs.

By Graham Dines

GROW up, support the leader, and stop damaging the party – that's the uncompromising message to plotting Conservatives from one of East Anglia's most respected and senior MPs.

Suffolk Coastal's John Gummer backed his university friend and Cabinet colleague Kenneth Clarke in the struggle for the Tory leadership two years' ago.

But he is now appalled at the latest bout of party fratricide which is threatening to destroy not only Iain Duncan Smith but also the fabric and future of the Conservative Party.

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On many issues, Mr Gummer – a chairman of the party during Margaret Thatcher's premiership – is ideologically worlds apart from Mr Duncan Smith, especially over the single European currency and the role the UK should play in European affairs.

Having seen Mr Clarke decisively rejected by the Tory faithful in the leadership contest in 2001, he believes Conservatives must unite behind IDS. He is in no mood to either replace the leader or destabilise the party as it prepares to present itself as an alternative government at the next General Election.

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"Innovative policies were announced at the party conference last week in Blackpool, but those more interested in their own political advantage ensured that their attempts to undermine Iain totally overshadowed it," says Mr Gummer, who has served nearly 30 years at Westminster.

"It would be utter nonsense to put this party through another leadership contest. I just say this to the noises-off plotters – you are seriously damaging the Conservatives."

Although he would not speculate on those suspected of fermenting turmoil at Westminster, Central Office and the constituencies up and down the country, his outright support for the person who was not his choice to be party leader will be met with considerable relief by IDS's staff and supporters.

In an article in this week's Spectator magazine, the Tory leader writes: "There are those in our party who, from a variety of motives, are convinced that I should not be leader.

"Some are highly principled colleagues and former colleagues who disagree with some of the policies I have set out. But they also include certain irreconcilable malcontents, the acolytes of former leadership contenders and their friends and allies in the media.

"Since I became leader there have been determined and sustained attempts to undermine my position through a series of off-the-record briefings and smears, culminating this month in a highly offensive and inaccurate slur on the integrity of myself and my wife."

Mr Gummer's intervention would seem to indicate that neither Kenneth Clarke nor any of his natural supporters in the parliamentary party have any interest in seeing the overthrow of IDS.

And the long and loud public support from former Home Secretary Michael Howard suggests his camp is not trying to undermine the leader's position.

Which leaves David Davis and Michael Portillo. Mr Davis, Shadow Deputy Prime Minister, is ambitious and makes no secret of his desire one day to lead the party. He is still resentful of his sacking from the Tory party chairmanship while he was on a family holiday in Florida last year.

Mr Portillo believes the party conference last week was ghastly, one of the worst he could ever remember. His biographer Michael Gove – one of the "acolyte" Portillistas who dominate the comment pages of The Times – wrote in that newspaper this week: "Tory MPs have to ask themselves if they can afford to let Mr Duncan Smith continue in office. He is now pursuing a strategy of proven failure.

"By putting personal survival before the interests of his party, Mr Duncan Smith has removed another justification for the party letting him survive.

"Perhaps a leadership election will indeed only bring misery on Conservative heads. But I cannot see how sitting on one's hands while Captain Duncan Smith saddles up for another canter into the Valley of Death can be justified."

The party and Mr Duncan Smith now await the outcome of the investigation by parliamentary standards watchdog Sir Philip Mawer into the Tory leader's payments to wife Betsy for secretarial work – inevitably dubbed Betsygate.

Depending on the outcome, 25 MPs may then challenge IDS by calling for a vote of confidence at Westminster.

Yesterday, the Tory leader tried to put real politics back on the agenda during a long-planned visit to Cornwall. Campaiging for votes in next year's European elections, he said the proposed European constitutional treaty "would take away our freedom to control our own destiny."

He told party workers: "Only Conservatives will speak out against a European constitution that would take away our freedom to control our own destiny. Only Conservatives are committed to keeping the pound and retaining control over our country's economic future.

"And only Conservatives will fight for the livelihoods of British people that are threatened by regulations and directives from Brussels."

His comments came as Tony Blair and 24 other heads of state and government were in Brussels for an EU summit to begin negotiations on the proposed treaty.

Mr Duncan Smith repeated Conservative pledges to withdraw from the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, saying: "We will campaign to restore national and local control of our waters. That way we can craft a policy to suit the needs of our fishermen and conserve our fish stocks."'

On the domestic front, the Conservative leader highlighted rural concerns, saying local post offices had closed "because Labour's new regulations made them unprofitable."

And he highlighted "the increasing isolation of rural communities as young people migrate to the larger towns and cities."

These are real issues on which the Tories could make headway against Tony Blair's government. The electorate wants to hear Conservative policies, rather than a recreation of the night of the long knives.

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