It is `just history' - but this feud is still tearing the Tories apart

The modern Tory party remains haunted by a brutal regicide of the woman who led them
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS, Francis Maude gamely insisted yesterday, "just history". John complains that Margaret was beastly to him. But wasn't Ted pretty beastly to Margaret? It's just the way of the world; and, anyway, it all happened a long time ago.

In the circumstances, as the Conservative Party limbers up for one if its periodic bouts of gruesome and retrospective autumn bloodletting, thanks to the memoirs of John Major - not to mention the man he sacked as Chancellor, Norman Lamont - it was probably as much as he could say. But it is, as Francis Maude knows better than most Tories, balderdash. Not only because in politics there is no such thing as "just history", but because the modern Tory party, to a quite extraordinary degree - given that it all ended almost a decade ago - remains haunted by the presence of the woman who led it for 15 epoch-changing years.

Nor is any suggestion that this is normal sustainable. It's true that just as the Tory party is more ruthless about getting rid of its leader than Labour, so Labour ex-leaders, being actually more imbued with old fashioned loyalty, have on the whole behaved better than Tory ones.

Labour ex-leaders tend to have more regard for the old naval wisdom that you "don't speak to the captain; don't spit on the deck" after you leave the bridge. Harold Wilson gave a mildly indiscreet interview or two after he stepped down. James Callaghan made his famous - and entirely overt - intervention in a cause in which he passionately believed (nuclear deterrence) during an election which Labour had absolutely no hope of winning (1983). But neither man harried their successors as Heath did Thatcher or Thatcher did Major. Michael Foot has admirably kept his counsel. And Neil Kinnock has been a model ex-leader. Kinnock was, for example, profoundly antipathetic to one of the most controversial policies pursued by both John Smith and Tony Blair - devolution in Wales and Scotland. But he has never let so much as a hint of a reservation pass his lips in public.

But in fact Margaret Thatcher's baleful, or, as Major calls it in one of his forthcoming BBC interviews, "intolerable" presence in the shadows throughout Major's regime was exceptional even by Tory standards. Ted Heath made no secret of his contempt for his successor. But on the whole he didn't, to use that phrase beloved of Tory grandees, "have the chaps". Certainly, by the time she had asserted control of her Cabinet after the 1981 budget, there was no squadron of Heathian Jacobites secretly swearing allegiance to their departed leader.

In Margaret Thatcher's case the circumstances were different. Major apparently describes her fall as marking the beginning of a Greek tragedy. The more appropriate reference might be Shakespeare's histories, with all that imagery about the brutal yanking up of roots with which the poet described the regicides which so preoccupied him. And Thatcher's fall in 1990 was a regicide with complications, not least the fact that it wasn't a clean fight. It might have been better if she had gone to a second ballot and been beaten fair and square by Michael Heseltine, instead of being persuaded by the Cabinet, invited to her presence by the silkily enigmatic Lord Wakeham, to stand down to avoid such a defeat. (This is a little like, some think, the way that it might have been less traumatic for Gordon Brown if he had actually been beaten by Tony Blair for the Labour leadership, instead of standing down in his favour.)

But, in any case, a large majority of John Major's tormentors, who made his party unleadable, were precisely those who wished she had never been ousted in 1990. Some were enraged by her political assassination; the rest were traumatised by the guilt of having themselves played a part in the assasination to save, as they saw it at the time, their own parliamentary seats. And what made it still more complicated was that they voted for Major because she told them to. Of course, the worst moment of Major's term, Black Wednesday, was a disaster which was not of her making. And of course she was a bigger figure than he was. But you don't have to be Sigmund Freud to recognise that once she turned against him, the guilty Tory right were bound to follow. John Major, nursing a timely toothache at Huntingdon at the time of the November 1990 trauma, had been the beneficiary of their treachery, and was in turn punished by the traitors.

The weapon they used, above all others, was Europe. When Major bravely tried to put Britain "at the heart of Europe" they instantly forgot that, up to the mid-1980s, she had been, in her own way, as communautaire as Heath, introducing in the Single European Act, the biggest surrender of sovereignty before or since. Instead, they followed late Thatcher by turning against everything which smacked of trying to improve relations with the EU. And, in the end, they did for him as the pro-European Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine had done for her.

According to those who have read parts of it, Major's book is "more balanced" than the leaked snippets from the television interviews suggest. He is expected, for example, to be fairer about Norman Lamont than Lamont will be about him. It is reportedly a moving account of how he came from a humble family background to the highest office in the land. This itself suggests a further complication in the Major-Thatcher relationship; she wasn't necessarily cleverer than he was, but despite her carefully cultivated provincialism, she was a Somerville girl, with huge intellectual self- confidence.

With any luck, his book will shed some light on the crucial period between 1990 and 1992 when the Major premiership, according to all outward signs, was going extremely well, but when he was already paranoid about the long shadow cast by his predecessor's acolytes. For the biggest unanswered question about Major's premiership is whether it foundered because she and her supporters were so awful or because he was too weak to overcome them.

But sorry, Mr Maude, the history still counts. Didn't appeasement in 1938 and 1939 still matter in the Tory leadership struggles of 1955 and 1963? And if it didn't still count, the Shadow Chancellor would not fear, as he did yesterday, to take sides between the two ex-prime ministers. And the man most obviously waiting in the wings to assume the leadership would not be Michael Portillo, one of the very few now in the highest levels of the Tory party who tried to persuade her to stay - and did not lift a finger to help John Major's leadership bid.

The truth is that the Tory party will not experience catharsis until it is led either by someone who was brave, and consequently guilt free, enough to charge her frontally - such as Kenneth Clarke - or has no blood on his hands, such as Portillo. For Tories, the day can surely not come soon enough.