Two years ago, the photographer David Modell embarked on a journey into the heart of the Conservative Party. His aim was to capture its temper as it approached another day of judgment. Whatever happens on Thursday, these have been for the most part months of turmoil, strain and dissension only rarely punctuated by moments of palpable success. The stress of disharmony has been been visible, high and low. This, as Nicholas Fraser tells it in the accompanying text, is the story of an old tribe attempting the most daunting of challenges - to raise itself one more time to do battle against adversaries presenting themselves as new

There were three dresses of Mrs Thatcher's in the Grantham Museum - a fantastically sequinned blue ball gown, an efficient, shoulder-padded job of the kind she wore at Tory Party conferences, and a brown houndstooth affair with a Sherlock Holmes cape. The exhibits were tucked away between a recreation of the youth of Isaac Newton, local boy made good, and a commemoration of the earth-moving equipment which in Victorian times was the town's principal industry. It looked dusty as well as perfunctory - a relic of times half-forgotten.

Further down the main street, in a kink of the one-way system, was the Leader's birthplace. At one time a French restaurant called The Premier, this had recently been turned into a chiropractor's, and the windows beneath the unassuming plaque were now filled with posters graphically describing the debilitating effects of chronic lower back pain.

I asked a waitress in the chintz-filled, cottagey Arts Centre about Mrs T: "Oh, she doesn't mean so much to us," she explained. "The first time she was here, to sign her book, there were people around the block. For the second book, no one showed up - there were more policemen than buyers. But, you know, she never cared about Grantham, despite all the fuss she made about coming from here. I suppose people will vote Tory, but they won't do so with enthusiasm."

It was raining as I stood later opposite what had once been Alderman Roberts's shop. Nothing was special about this distinctively Middle England tableau. All political careers must end in failure, but in Britain they finish as anticlimax, too - and it was surely appropriate that what had happened to Mrs Thatcher should now have befallen the Tories. In her own demise, after her rejection by the Party in 1990, Mrs Thatcher had seemed a tragic, misery-soaked figure as she dropped into the habit of haranguing us like a Victorian aunt, an old comedy turn out of the repertoire of her favourite court musician, the now ennobled Lord Lloyd-Webber.

Her own party's surreal auto-destruction had its humorous side, but it was not devoid of grandeur. The Tories were fulfilling the double role of mugger and victim; they had become the notorious Twain of Thomas Hardy's doleful poem about the Titanic - the monstrous, looming iceberg and the giant, cold ship, set on its inexorable course for disaster.

I had been following the Tories' progress as one might a curiosity, a curse, or merely as something, like the weather itself, that would always be there but never be entirely nice. But I also gradually became aware of them as a story with a beginning, a middle and - so I hoped - an end. Their relationship with the rest of us came to interest me. It seemed as if, uniquely and despite appearances, they had been able to claim some special adjustment not just to our needs but to our sense of well-being, even our identity. But they had changed, as I began to appreciate, and, more importantly, so had we. As a country, as a collection of people, we were no longer the same as we had been on that distant day 18 years ago when Mrs Thatcher came to power. But the Tories were not the same people either. They had grown old, died, or become disgraced. They mattered - but not usually in the way in which they thought they did. Like old performers or unloved pets, they had become somewhat cranky. Even the youngest Tories - and there were not so many any more - were starting to look old.

Above all, what I had learned to think of as their fall had occurred some time ago. Since the resignation of Mrs Thatcher, the Tories had governed, made speeches, squabbled and taken bribes. But their heart hadn't been in the business. What they wished to sort out was not as, whose existence they had come to take for granted, but their own unfinished business with the recent past. In particular, they wanted to know what should be done with the memory of Margaret, who still dominated them, and with those perfidious individuals who had got rid of her or benefited from her downfall. Here it appeared that retributive action as well as redress were required, the dimensions of which were awesome and, to the rest of us, the non-Tories, wholly incomprehensible.

Travelling around Europe to write a book, I had again and again confronted the question of what it was that still, evidence to the contrary, caused the British to think of themselves as un-European; and I had concluded that much of the answer lay in what, at risk of being thought facetious, one must call the Tory Mind. Tories didn't believe in progress, and they were able to accept the future only if it came packaged as the past. Their attachment to the idea of Britain was mystical as well as practical - but it also transcended geography. Above all, it was intimate and personal. "It must be terrible to lose someone you love in a foreign country," Theo Kretschmar Schuldorf tells Colonel Blimp, in the classic wartime film, when he is shown the agelessly beautiful portrait of the latter's dead wife. "It was in Jamaica, actually," the Colonel replies as he pours a drink.

For all its obsession with the paraphernalia of English common sense, Toryism was a modern revivalist religion. It had its own devotees, its sects or heretics. We were aware of this, to be sure, and it was something no Tory ever forgot. However, no one knew, or cared to ask, what happened to such movements of belief when they were in disarray or decline. Did they find another leader - or another faith? Did they resort to poisoned Kool-Aid, or depart for the nearest comet after leaving messages on the Internet?

Understandably, serious commentators were exercised by the question of who would take power after Armageddon. I became more concerned with the question of who or what the Tories would become. Would they be new, as they would certainly claim, or would they prove to be an even older version of yesterday's party? What would they believe? Late in the game, as night closed in, I became a Tory-watcher.

I was there on a mild evening last January when the press were out in force, camped on the 1960s paving piazza of Kensington Town Hall. As the crowd flowed past, I counted the Tory totems

revealed under the harsh lights: three fur coats, 10 velvet collars, six cloche hats, four Old-Etonian ties, a legion of tints, and, for the men who still had their hair, the distinctive duck's ass effect induced by so much Jermyn Street lotion. These Kensington Tories were prosperous-looking, but impatient, too, with the demands of so many importunate photographers. They made the kind of muttering noises well- bred people do when the arrangements at a funeral have been not so subtly misconceived.

Three ballots were required to find a victor. "He's got it," someone said. The sound of faint clapping came from every direction. "It's a bloody disgrace," a tall man wearing a Guards tie replied. "The old roue cracks a few jokes and then you give him the seat." The man next to me, who handled private investor business through a Jersey company, and who was certain that Labour would be elected, laughed. "It's only politics," he jeered. "At least, if they find him face downwards, there'll be a woman underneath." He cupped his hands and bellowed at the crowd: "So the man's had problems with women - give him the seat."

I could see his point - problems were what the Tory Party trafficked in these days, when its members weren't busy trying to eviscerate each other. The incumbent, Nicholas Scott, had driven his Volvo into a stroller on the Fulham Road, and, six months later, had been found in a Bournemouth gutter after what he described as an excess dose of painkillers. Alan Clark, on the other hand, had done well out of what might have proved his downfall. "Sometimes I have been foul to her," he wrote in his diary about his wife. "Why? Oh, hormones, I suppose."

Foulness appeared to be everywhere in the Tory party, but hormones were in distinctly short supply, and there was a market for them. Here now, accompanying the 69-year-old prospective MP for the Royal Borough, was his wife Jane, dressed in blue. She smiled adoringly at him as he walked about triumphantly, followed by the cameras. He was, depending on the angle from which one caught him, either astonishingly well-preserved or alarmingly eaten away: I couldn't tell if he was tanned or merely covered with age freckles. He seemed the perfect candidate for 1997.

Week after week, I surveyed the Tories. What had happened to them? Beginning in the spirit of Joe Orton, with such exotic props as plastic sacks and oranges, or shared double beds in cut-rate French gourmet breaks, the Tory scandal had since lost its rarity value. In its public doings, the Party now resembled Brookside Close. How many MPs had collected money from Harrods in brown envelopes, or groped teenage hostesses under the ruinous gaze of telephoto lenses? How many more bodies lay hidden below flagstones? I began to prepare myself for the end of the Tories. But familiarity made this task difficult - I was used to the sound of bath water that refused to empty, and some part of me refused to believe that after 18 years there were indeed circumstances in which the Tory Party could be removed from power.

I watched The Ploughman's Lunch, a film made at the time of Mrs Thatcher's triumph in the Falklands War, in which a young Jonathan Pryce played a sharp-elbowed arriviste working for the BBC, seeking to ditch his lower middle-class parents by acquiring an invented past. "It's a completely satisfactory fabrication," a character remarked of the Ploughman's itself, a British tradition which in reality had been created by an agency - and we were meant to believe the same of the Tories in the era of post-modernism. Pryce did look hungry and adaptable. I could see him organising his own downfall, sleaze-style.

For many years, the greatest chasm in British intellectual life had separated those who were prepared to take what the Tories said seriously from those, leftists in particular, who thought it was all faked. "I do not understand how anyone with a normal share of virtue and intelligence can be a Tory," wrote Neal Ascherson in The Independent on Sunday. I looked at the party political broadcasts of the last 18 years. When they weren't explaining away dole queues, the early ones were filled with martial images, and I cherished in particular Thatcher shown in profile on a Chieftain tank, wearing what looked to be a white chador, from which her blonde tresses blew in the wind.

Then, somewhere after 1990, it was apparent that the plot was changed. Gone was the Arthur Bryant saga of patriotic romance - instead, a sober, actuarial recitation of fact prevailed. In John Major's time, politics resembled The Antiques Roadshow, with unctuous voices imploring us to hang on to everything we had received from the Tories. Re-viewing these offerings, I recalled the boredom of the past years. Never had I found politics harder to take than in the age of Victor Meldrew, negative equity and road rage.

My privatised train to Wales on Valentine's Day was late, and I ran up the hill and into a village hall-sized space packed with local Tories. They were so old, it was a surprise. I knew that the average age of a party member was 62, and that recruitment was in free-fall; but I hadn't anticipated such profuse clusters of white curls, so many walking sticks or Zimmer frames. John Major spoke for a very long time. He looked exhausted, strikingly worse on the TV monitor beside him than he did in the flesh; and I noticed that he couldn't finish sentences, in the same way that I had been told he couldn't open doors without waiting for the people behind him to pass through them. The one moment of poetry in his speech came when he pledged himself to defend the principle of hereditary peerage, and he was applauded vigorously when he depicted the prospect of the threat posed to 1,000 years of our history by Europe. His references to the "Chianti- swilling classes" represented by Islington New Labour were graceless and passe; but they, too, received endorsement. I couldn't tell whether the cheers were motivated by genuine resentment or the sudden apprehension of loss.

Next door were piles of unsold jigsaws depicting John and Norma seated, Gainsborough-style, on a low double chair and looking awkward; and diminutive teddies wearing blue jerseys that bore the inscription "John Major - Simply the Best". As I haplessly tried to engage Welsh Tories in conversation, I remembered what a Tory speech-writer friend of mine had said: one joined the Tories for comfort and mutual support, and stayed for life. Tories did live in another country, and it was a place where certainties were never shattered - because Tories did look after each other.

But this friend also warned me that Planet Tory was campy and eccentric at the best of times. When things were bad, the degree of unreality became overpowering. "The Party is full of the people whom Willie Whitelaw called `the beasties' or `the little people'," he explained. "They are the types who call for hanging and flogging at the conferences. Luckily, they now have Europe to complain about - and it keeps them busy."

I stood in the gents beside two stout, middle-aged men discussing the merits of the Llangollen golf course. As I waited in the lobby, the Prime Minister emerged from another door. He shook the hand of a teacher resembling Glenys Kinnock, and extended his hand towards me before withdrawing it.

Fear was an emotion that the Tories had long known how to evoke; but what they now feared most of all was their own disintegration. Around London were outsize images of a comatose British lion shedding a picturesque red tear. NEW LABOUR EURO DANGER, the billboards proclaimed. I met Tories in City lawyers' offices, swish Mayfair corporate suites, or in the cramped circumstances of the Commons tea-room. We might briefly begin by talking of other things; but soon we came to "Europe", a place which bore no relation to the one reached by Eurostar. It was Virtual - unreal in the powers ascribed to it. It changed according to convenience or the mood of the speaker. At a time of growing

unhappiness, Europe stood in the Tory mind for all things harder to articulate. Most Tories thought that now they were inside Europe, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get out; and this, too, caused rancour.

Lord Howe was wearing a flowered tie and a racy, tan suit. He said, with sudden animation when I pressed him on the point, "Yes, I don't think the average Tory knows much about Europe. All many are aware of is how much they hate the place."

A youngish, Europhile Tory who had written some of John Major's speeches was still harsher. "Europe is a proxy for other matters," he said. "The Tories have always been divided between English nationalists and outward- looking liberals. Mrs Thatcher upset this division. She appeared to prove that you could be both nationalistic and look to the wider world - but then she was kicked out. People still feel, consciously or not, she should be there and that she was lost because of Europe. But you could set Tory backbench MPs an exam paper on the subject of Europe, and it would come back covered with splotches. On the other hand, some of them have begun to read the Maastricht Treaty. I agree with Kenneth Clarke - I tell them not to bother."

Tories old and young, I discovered, were Europhobes; all that separated them was the degree of hostility. For David Willetts, the urbane school prefect, the author of Why Vote Conservative, a mild sense of satisfaction was the right attitude to adopt when faced with the failings of Continental Europe - the high unemployment, the unfortunate obsession with public health care or good transport systems.

Willetts maintained that the Tories weren't xenophobic, merely patriotic. "We don't go in for that - really we don't," he said, when I suggested that politicians all over Europe had taken to invoking claims of the nation state, and that some of them, like Le Pen in France and Haider in Austria, could lay claim to a distinctively unpleasant pedigree. But Willetts, I had been warned, was manoeuvring - he had written the manifesto but he was also busy jockeying for the new, post-election order.

David Heathcote-Amory had already made his choice. He had resigned as Paymaster-General last year; now he was sitting in his Westminster room, writing about Europe. A first pamphlet described the unsuitability of the single currency on the by now familiar grounds that it destroyed British sovereignty. A more recent speech recast his argument in cultural terms, describing the British as "unusual Europeans" - the tone of polite Tory xenophobia - who should be allowed to get on in peace with their own affairs without interference.

Educated at Eton, Heathcote-Amory, by birth and stiffly unassuming deportment, resembled the Tories of 70 years ago. I could see that he merited the reputation of intractability he had acquired among his colleagues. He believed in the simplest and most effective symbols of Toryism: the flag, the throne, the party. Under Mrs Thatcher, these things had been safe, but they were now in jeopardy. He might have joined the Referendum Party - he had been approached by them. But he continued to believe that his party could be brought to its senses. Would Britain leave Europe? Well, that was possible; but extensive adjustments to our position might also be feasible. It might take several years. He was prepared to wait.

"You're talking to a wild man," he said. "It will happen, and it will be like a civil war, splitting families." He pointed to the fact that social exchanges with Leon Brittan had already become difficult. The latter was godfather to his child.

I walked round the Houses of Parliament one morning when MPs were packing to go home in readiness for the election campaign. A room contained murals depicting such abstractions as Courtesy, Religion and Hospitality; otherwise, the place was given over to armorial or figurative depictions - remote, bloodthirsty episodes from the Civil War or early colonial times, massacres by sea and land of the Republican French. I rubbed Winston Churchill's shiny bronze foot as I contemplated the Lenin-like features of Lloyd George and, opposite, the empty space I had been told was reserved for Baroness Thatcher.

I had spent the last two years going to Parliament buildings in Europe while I pondered the shape of Europe's future. Other countries still boasted patriots or hailed the exploits of football teams; Tory patriotism was more serious - it actually kept the party together. Nothing, I could see, would shake the Tory view of the exceptional British past, and nothing would destroy the Tory conviction that, as inheritors of their tradition, only they were capable of interpreting it for the rest of us. Where else in Europe, indeed the world, would one find a modern right-of-centre party wishing to retain a second chamber based on hereditary privilege and to build a new Royal Yacht - but also prepared to sell the Underground?

In a shoddy theatre in Bath, filled with party workers awaiting Major, there was an end-of-term feeling. Dressed in blue suits with blue polka dot ties and rosettes, the bigwigs circulated, wearing lugubrious expressions. "There's Waldegrave, and Howard's here, too," the activist from Hove growled without enthusiasm. I asked him about the latest, catastrophic polls. Did he really think they would win? Last time, he reminded me, they had come back to confound the pollsters. He leant over and whispered in my ear. "I wouldn't have wanted to be a Labour politician these past 18 years," he said, winking. "But then I wouldn't have wanted to be a black man, either."

Major's speech was bad enough to convince me that he believed his luck was finally running out. He had delivered an impressively prosperous phase of the British economic cycle, and he had done it in time for the polls. But now he looked terrified by the crowd.He improvised on the dull text, with near-fatal results. "Hear, hear," the Hove man cried after each paragraph, louder and louder. A German correspondent turned to me during a peroration about low taxation. "Now comes the Nuremberg with hats," he said. Suddenly, Major was walking through aisles filled with old people. There was electronic Elgar and red-white-and-blue streamers, thrown with calculated abandon. It seemed as if the old days were back again. "They're not such bad people," the German said. "The Tory Party is a petit bourgeois heaven."

Reprise was what the Tories now offered. They had propelled the British people onwards, into uncertainty, in the name of a cherished past. However, as election day approached, I began to feel that such elaborate sleight- of-hand was no longer viable. The black arts of spin and psephology merely highlighted tiredness and vacuity. How could one associate the rule of money with the traditional Tory cult of freedom when it was so obviously connected with sleaze?

"Well, of course there are rotten apples," confided a Tory who had worked for the past decade as a lobbyist for a large company. "After that long in power, everyone who has been bound to fuck up has done so, and everyone who had the chance to succeed has become bored. So you get tempted. `I might as well just do that' is how you react. You think about the new conservatory or the trip to Paris. And you do what you shouldn't do."

I treasured Neil Hamilton's pin-striped encounter with the white-suited Martin Bell. It was updated Ealing Comedy, a reaffirmation of Michael Frayn's familiar division of the British into carnivores and herbivores. The day after, I asked Lord Blake, historian of the modern Conservative Party, about sleaze. "I suppose it's no worse than in the past. These minor things have always gone on," he said briskly. "But they're aren't going to win the election, and they know it. The problem is Margaret. John Major is her successor, and he hasn't done badly; but they don't think so. Margaret, for them, is the true Tory of the 20th century - not Churchill, who was a Liberal for much of his career, and certainly not Ted Heath, who was a technocrat and hardly a Tory at all."

I asked him about the Tory soul - was it a fiction, as enemies of the Tories alleged? "Oh, goodness yes," he said, and repeated: it was Thatcher.

It was warm the day I went to Dorset, with peerless blue skies, and I caught the woman I still thought of as Mrs Thatcher in a garden centre, standing before a clump of evergreens. I was happy to see that she was wearing a suit identical to the one I had seen in Grantham. Beneath the familiar helmet of hair, she looked older and stooped. She walked among ageing fans as if she were playing a favourite role of Bette Davis, or vice versa. We moved to the sunny playground of a Church of England school. A youngish Anglican cleric with a neat beard awaited her, along with a class of six year-olds. Listening to Mrs Thatcher's over-emphatic sentences, watching her bend, dutifully, with stiff knees, over one child after another, I stood in Tory Heaven.

The day before, I recalled, Tony Blair had announced his willingness to countenance further privatisations. This was genuine news, indeed, perhaps the most significant fact to have emerged from the election so far, and I reflected that there was little or nothing in Britain that hadn't been touched by Mrs Thatcher. But now she paused before an 89-year- old veteran. I heard her talk about nation states and how Britain needed to recover control of its laws, its Parliament, its economy. "Recover", she repeated loudly in the veteran's ear, "RE-COVER", as if she had this minute coined the word and was making sure it found its way into the next edition of the OED. When a young reporter interrupted to ask about the Single Currency, she reacted in the style of the latex version of herself, by wagging her index finger. "I have already said everything I'm going to say," she declared in the same very loud voice.

I was sitting on a moss wall watching Mrs T climb into her car when the man next to me, holding the hand of a child eating an ice-cream, stepped forward. "Do us all a favour and come back," he said. "Come back and take over again." I could see that he was in tears, and it struck me, suddenly, that fate had dealt ill with John Major. Although he had lasted seven years, doing what others had expected of him, it had never been enough - and it never could have been. I imagined that he would soon be rehabilitated, but not by his own party. Meanwhile, the Tories were doomed to re-stage, on every TV channel or cover of Hello! available, an elaborate pageant entitled "Back To Margaret".

"Unbeaten in three elections, never rejected by the people, brought down by nonentities," was how Alan Clark described her downfall. Through guilt, or out of a sense that that was where they belonged, the Tories would certainly return to Margaret, and they would do so sooner rather than later.

In the Tory style, past deviations from loyalty might be excused, and disloyal service during the interregnum would certainly be forgotten. However, one significant test would be applied. The successful candidate, whether called John, Michael, Malcolm, William or even (however unlikely) Angela, would be required to demonstrate impeccable firmness on the matter of Europe. And this meant that, within a year or so, we in Britain would boast the first big European political party definitively opposed to the idea of Europe - committed, even, to the idea of loosening, or even breaking, our continental links.

I became certain of this sitting two days later in a converted chapel in West Dorset, talking to the local Tory candidate, Oliver Letwin. He was an Old Etonian, a Jewish intellectual. After teaching at Cambridge, Letwin worked for Mrs T at Downing Street, where he help think up and apply the notion of privatisation. Ten years later, after becoming a director of NM Rothschild and unsuccessfully fighting two seats (in Hackney and Hampstead), he was looking forward to the only battle that now mattered - and he predicted the same outcome whether the Tories won or lost.

"I will vote against European Monetary Union," his manifesto declared simply. This didn't mean forever, I learnt, but for 10 or 20 years. Like Charles Moore, the editor of The Telegraph, whom he called by his first name, Letwin believed that Europe would go to hell or become like the Ottoman Empire, and that we British must withdraw. He held these beliefs with the perspective of a man who had spent much of the past 10 years flying around the world advising governments on how to entrust their assets to private hands, and who could thus be said to have acquired a truly global perspective. And he had got them from Mrs Thatcher.

Based on the minute-to-minute patterns of markets, or the continuous re-circulation of images, late 20th-century capitalism destroyed the past, cutting branches off the old trees which had sustained it. I asked Letwin whether the venerable nation state wasn't in despair. It was absurd to think that the career of the state was ended, he said, sounding like Sir James Goldsmith, whom he admired. Look at Israel, which stood up for itself, or Singapore, where they flogged whomever they wished. The nation state had another 1,000 years of usefulness. This election, appearances to the contrary, was really about whether it should be preserved or not.

I wondered whether the Tory brass accepted these views. "Oh, they know about them," he said. "I think they're quite happy that someone outside the Cabinet is saying this."

Charming and fluent, Letwin was dressed in Sloane Street cords, with a striped shirt and prematurely weathered, scuffed brogues. He did seem a bit metropolitan for West Dorset; but I noticed that one of the dishes of the day at the new restaurant in Maiden Newton was kangaroo fillet with truffle souffle. Awesomely intelligent as he appeared to be, I wondered whether he was right - not so much about Europe or the Tory Party, but about the attitudes of contemporary Britons. Mobiles and juggling money did go with the quest for roots and the re-adoption of ancient values, and British history famously showed the effects of blending novelty with the past, fake or not.

It must be tempting for the Tories to believe that the Thatcher moment can be retrieved. But Toryism doesn't appeal to many outside the diminishing circle of the faithful. I walked around the small, beautiful Dorset town, and felt myself resenting the near-infinite uses to which English nostalgia can be put.

I sensed that it would be better for all of us if Mrs Thatcher had been allowed to stay in power, in order to lose this election. I dreaded her proxy return to pre-eminence - like many others, I now sought a coherent future that didn't draw its meaning so exclusively from the fustian past. However, I would have to wait until the next millennium and the next election to find out whether her spirit could triumph once again over reason and the unfamiliar, difficult Britain which she had brought into being

Nicholas Fraser is the author of "Continental Drifts: Travels in the New Europe", to be published by Secker and Warburg in July. A selection of David Modell's political photographs are currently on show in "Photo-spin" at the Photographer's Gallery, Great Newport Street, WC1

Hope and glory?: 1995 Blackpool. As the party conference comes to an end, the faithful give voice in time-honoured fashion. But underlying the swelling anthem, there seethes a discernible undertow of anxiety. The issue of Europe is eating away at the heart of the party, the opinion polls make painful reading and in Tony Blair, Labour has, for the first time in an aeon, a leader who gives every sign of being horribly electable

The call and the recall: 17 March 1997. Outside the whips' office in Downing Street, party workers gather to watch John Major tell the press that 1 May would indeed be election day. Their world bristled with challenge: to the left (or was it the left?) stood Labour, their official adversary. Above them hovered the spectre of Lady Thatcher, still worshipped by many Tories. Would she support or undermine? Her attitude to Major throughout his leadership had been skittish; or was it shrewish? But when the call came, she was there, passing among her idolators, keeping the faith. Her greatest sway may be with the old, but here she is at a primary school in Hampshire earlier this month

The defender and the referender: The campaign bus rolls into Norwich, and the Prime Minister meets a crowd as always well-peopled with supporters. He is almost in his element, but not quite. Talking one-to- one or joshing with a journalist, Major shows a wit and charm that exceeds strangers' expectations. But in a crowd, dealing with hecklers, his humour can seem caustic; though by no means as caustic as his feelings may be towards Sir James Goldsmith, titan of Europhobia, seen here at the East London printers of his Referendum Party newspaper, which they pledged to supply free of charge to every household in Britain

For whom the bell tolls: Neil Hamilton and his wife Christine, la Pasionaria of the battle of Tatton. At once exulting and squirming in the halogen of publicity, they became the one compelling story of the early campaign. In this constituent's house, he orates and she emotes. Whether these two men have identical views about Hamilton is unknown; that, among the faithful at the Bournemouth party conference of 1996, they were atypically young, was all too painfully obvious

No panacea here: Michael Portillo, sometime dashing hero of the Tory right, tries his arm at the Wirral by-election in February. He found a well-stocked chemist's shop, but the Tory candidate was beyond help. The Tories took a hammering. But what did it mean? Was it just a particularly terrible night that would feel less grim as time went on, or was it a sign of things to come? Such thoughts may have been much in the mind of this gentleman at the party's low-key election rally at the Albert Hall

An electoral word in your ear: Brian Mawhinney whispers who-knows- what to the man he must make a winner again; Sheila Gunn, Maurice Saatchi and Charles Lewington - press officer, advertiser and strategist - stand together looking pensive, as well they might; and the gentlemen of the press look on like gentlemen... of the press

Not really going away: In summer 1995, when Michael Portillo held back and grim, Vulcan-eared John Redwood strode in from the right to challenge John Major's leadership, lips curled in incredulity. If they are still curled, it is for other reasons. Though Major saw him off in that contest, his adversary burgeoned alarmingly in the spotlight, taking almost indecent pleasure from being centre-stage. His defeat was not the end of his leadership campaign but the beginning. Who knows if his day will come, or how soon. But, in the meantime, came another setback during electioneering in his own Wokingham constituency: this doorstep presented an adversary too formidable to face down. A socialist or just a Europhiliac? Ever-resistant to being a wet, our hero did not stick around to find out

The pleasure of their company: Kenneth Clarke, Eurofighter and booming presence (though the words "Britain is booming' never passes his lips), makes himself at home in the Ipswich Conservative Association; while Bath welcomes his leader, who goes walkabout amidst that city's Regency splendours, winning hearts and, possibly, minds

Hard look, soft lips, big smile (clockwise from below): April 1997. A seasoned supporter dresses warmly for the first election rally at the Albert Hall; Sir Ivan Lawrence, MP, treats a constituent with a courtliness unwonted in Burton-on-Trent; and in Yorkshire, a woman supporter is suffused with joy at the sight of John Major emerging from the headquarters of the Halifax Building Society. In this she appears to be alone

The fringe that grew: 1996, Bournemouth, conference time: Eurosceptics out in force to fight the `Battle for Britain' against `the third German invasion of Europe'. Their heroes, Lord Tebbit and the eight MPs who flouted the leadership, marched to the platform to the strains of `Rule, Britannia'

The insatiables: June 1995. College Green, Westminster. Before their eyes, the great ones of the party are interviewed; in their ears, the latest on the Major-Redwood leadership battle, still nagging as 1 May looms

She shall not be moved : 1997 Bath. At a meeting of the Conservative Central Committee addressed by David Willetts, the leading Tory strategist who had been forced to resign as a Whip for `dissembling' to MPs