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Brexit: Conservative party being 'hollowed out' by former Ukip members, John Major says

The Independent logo The Independent 20/02/2019 Benjamin Kentish

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Sir John Major has launched a scathing attack on “zealot” Tory Brexiteers, accusing ”extreme” Conservative MPs of acting as “a party within a party”.

In a move likely to fuel Tory warfare over Brexit, the former prime minister accused some members of the European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative MPs of having “little or nor affinity to moderate, pragmatic and tolerant Conservatism”.

He said the Conservatives and Labour were both being “mainpulated by fringe opinion” and claimed right-wingers in his own party were shaping government policy “simply by being intransigent”.

Sir John urged moderate Conservative MPs to stay in the party rather than join the new Independent Group, insisting Tory and Labour MPs need to force their parties towards the political centre.

Related: Three Tory MPs quit party in protest at Theresa May's Brexit plans

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In a speech at the University of Glasgow, he said: “Currently, both the Conservative and Labour parties are being manipulated by fringe opinion. The rationale for extremists joining mainstream parties is logical: from within them, they can influence policy; from without, they very rarely can.

John Major wearing a suit and tie © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited “The Conservative Party membership appears to be ‘hollowing out’ traditional Conservatives, while former Ukip members strengthen the anti-European right of the party.”

In a blistering attack on Jacob Rees-Mogg‘s ERG, he continued: “In parliament, the European Research Group has become a party within a party, with its own whips, its own funding and its own priorities. Some of its more extreme members have little or no affinity to moderate, pragmatic and tolerant Conservatism.

Conservative MP and Chairman of the European Research Group (ERG), Jacob Rees-Mogg © Getty Conservative MP and Chairman of the European Research Group (ERG), Jacob Rees-Mogg

“The ERG does not represent a majority view, but with a minority government – as now – can determine policy simply by being intransigent, which is precisely what it is doing.

“Some – who can fairly be called zealots – seem incapable of looking beyond the one issue of Europe. It’s not just that it dominates their thinking – it seems to obsess them.”

Sir John was speaking after seven MPs resigned from the Labour Party to form a new parliamentary grouping. The former prime minister said he admired their “courage and their conviction” but hoped they had not “cut themselves adrift forever” because Labour needed moderate MPs inside the party.

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He also urged potential defectors in his own party to stay put, saying they had a “duty” to ensure the Tories “retain a mainstream majority of their own”.

He said: “When I refer to ‘the centre’, I don’t mean some amorphous new party of ‘moderates’ and ‘centrists’. Even if such a party were elected, what would unfold when it fell out of favour? For all governments are mortal.

“With mainstream opinion sidelined, the country’s only choice would be between the extremes of left or right. That would be an awful outcome. Our electorate needs a choice between parties that are demonstrably rational, realistic and sane.

“So, when I speak of ‘the centre’, I mean that our three main national parties – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat – must each retain a mainstream majority of their own.”

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