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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tories Vow Fight, But Rifts Continue

BOURNEMOUTH, England, -- Britain's ruling Conservatives on Tuesday opened their last conference before a general election with fighting words as they tried to convince voters they had not run out of steam after 17 years in power.

"This is a party that is on its way to winning the next election," party chairman Brian Mawhinney said. "We must win and we will win."

But the background to the gathering could hardly have been less auspicious, with the party split from top to bottom over Europe and demoralized by new allegations of political sleaze involving Conservative members of parliament.

A guerrilla attack Monday on Britain's main army base in Northern Ireland also underscored the fragility of what many see as John Major's biggest achievement in six years as prime minister -- progress toward peace in the troubled province.

To make matters worse, an ICM opinion poll in the Guardian newspaper showed that the opposition Labour Party, fresh from its own triumphant conference last week, had widened its lead to 18 percentage points from 15.

The election must be held by May, leaving the Conservatives with a mountain to climb. The hardest task facing Mawhinney and Major, whose majority in the 651-seat House of Commons has dwindled to just one, is to present the party as united.

"If we don't all hang together then we shall certainly hang separately ... if the public thinks the Conservative party is a house divided against itself then manifestly we shall be unfit for office," former cabinet minister David Mellor said.

But provocative comments by another ex-minister, right-winger John Redwood, fanned fears among party managers that deep-seated divisions over Britain's future in Europe will blow apart the stage-managed unity of the conference hall.

"If in a meeting there is a heated argument going on, you will not be heard if you occasionally murmur that you have not yet made up your mind," Redwood wrote.

In a counterblast, European Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan demanded that "Euro-skeptics" like Redwood who oppose closer European ties come clean about their true objectives.

"If those hostile to the European Union wish to pursue the debate with integrity, it is time for them to declare their hand -- do they wish the U.K. to continue as a member of the EU, or would they like to see Britain withdraw altogether," Brittan, an ex-Conservative minister, told a fringe meeting.

With former prime minister Margaret Thatcher -- standard bearer of the Euro-skeptics -- present on the podium, delegates heard Mawhinney warn that a Labour government would destroy Britain's competitiveness, undermine the unity of the United Kingdom and sell out its interests in Europe.

"So if they win this time, don't think that a future Conservative victory on its own could get that power back. Only if we win -- and win this time -- can Britain stay self-governing," Mawhinney said.