THE TORY LEADERSHIP/ 3: Just one old lion in this jungle frightens Blair

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"YOU DO realise, don't you," a Conservative MP said to a lobby journalist last week, "that you're dealing with the most sophisticated electorate in the world?" The member concerned had almost certainly picked up this phrase from television, where it was employed several times in the course of the week. Television had, as always, got it wrong. It was originally used of the Parliamentary Labour Party, in particular of its election of leader, which was ended with the choice of Mr Michael Foot in 1980.

No one has ever thought of Conservative backbenchers as sophisticated in matters electoral. They did not even think it of themselves: not, at any rate, until they were recently flattered by television. They were never any good at sums, unless they happened to be former officers in the Navy or the Artillery, when they would have had to familiarise themselves with the rudiments of mathematics as part of the job. They are still no good at sums, despite the influx of estate agents and double-glazing salesmen. A moment's conversation with any young backbencher will demonstrate that.

Nor have elections ever been a constituent of the Conservative Party's culture. In the People's Party, by contrast, some knowledge of them was a necessary condition of advancement. "That motion requires a two-thirds majority, comrade" or "This calls for an exhaustive ballot" was as familiar a refrain as "I move the reference back". Not so with the Conservatives, in the past or today.

The consequence is that, in the 30 years since they were introduced to the delights of democracy, they have invariably ended up with leaders they did not really want. Thus in 1965 they wished to administer a shock to the old guard as represented by Reginald Maudling (the bookies' favourite) but ended up with Sir Edward Heath instead, with whom they were stuck for 10 years. In 1975 they wanted to give him a similar shock but landed themselves with Lady Thatcher.

Fifteen years later they did not really want Mr John Major who, in the second ballot, was two short of the absolute majority required by the rules. His principal merit was that he was not Mr Michael Heseltine. But, if Lady Thatcher had gone on into the second ballot, she would have defeated Mr Heseltine comfortably. Instead she broke down in tears after meeting a procession of canting Cabinet ministers - a state which I do not expect to see Mr Major in before he decides to go into the second ballot. If history is any guide, we may expect the Conservatives to end up with a leader they do not want.

The leader they really want is Mr Heseltine. This is because he offers the only hope they have of hanging on to their seats. They do not want Mr Major, despite his manifest decency and his masterful performance at Question Time on Thursday. This resembled Lady Thatcher's "I'm enjoying this" speech in November 1990. It followed rather than preceded her removal from office (though she did not formally resign as Prime Minister till later). In Mr Major's case I am prepared to believe that he was more self-confident than demob happy.

Mr Heseltine is not, moreover, quite the dominating figure he was five years ago. The big beast of the jungle to whom some of my colleagues in the commentating trade still refer admiringly seems to me more like a mangy old lion in a broken-down travelling circus. He sits on his stool, he does his tricks, he emits fierce roars, the children pretend to be frightened, but the old boy is simply going through the motions. He knows, and they know, that it is all a bit of a game.

Nevertheless, games throw up winners. Mr Heseltine still sees himself as a possible victor. In the last 10 days his primary concern has been to free himself of any taint of disloyalty. He may have gone too far for his own good. Let us recall his exact words to Mr John Humphrys last Thursday. We may need to have them off pat in the days ahead: "There's no circumstances that I'm going to challenge the Prime Minister in this particular election."

Mr Michael Portillo has not said this. Mr Portillo's ubiquitous "friends" - whom I suspect have been quite extraordinarily like Mr Portillo himself in voice, manner and appearance - have not said it either. What Mr Portillo has said publicly is that he expects Mr Major to win outright on the first ballot. Therefore that is the end of the question. His famous friends have added, however, that he expects to be a candidate in the second ballot. There is no qualification I have heard to the effect that he would desist if Mr Major were also a candidate. The inarticulate premise seems to be that, if the Prime Minister failed to win outright, he would retire from the contest, as Lady Thatcher (who was in first place) did in 1990, or as Sir Edward (who was in second place) did in 1975.

There is no justification for believing that Mr Major would likewise retire from the ring: though he would almost certainly do so if Mr John Redwood were (while failing to win outright) ahead of him on the first ballot. When Mr Portillo learnt last Monday that Mr Redwood was to be a candidate he looked like a man who thought he had just swallowed a bad oyster. He did not know for certain, but he suspected he had. In a few hours - perhaps even before then - he was going to be terribly sick. That was the way Mr Portillo looked.

And with good reason. Not only did Mr Redwood's intervention cause consternation in the Major camp, a condition which did not begin to be remedied until Thursday. His candidature also disposed of Mr Portillo's claim, made both by himself and by those talkative friends of his, to be the only true leader of the Tory right. His old Cambridge tutor, Mr Maurice Cowling, having refused to participate in the Panorama profile of his pupil on 19 June, sought to remedy the omission by putting in a unique appearance on Newsnight. But it was no good. If Mr Portillo stands in any second ballot, Mr Redwood will surely be standing too. Why should the pioneer withdraw into the shadows in order that the light may shine on a usurper?

There is no reason at all, except to minimise the split on the Tory right. For split it is. It is now divided among supporters of Mr Portillo, Mr Redwood and Mr Major, who fear that by voting for Mr Redwood they will let in Mr Heseltine on the second ballot. Mr Redwood's followers are trying to run the story that the Labour Party wants to keep Mr Major where he is. But Labour, they say, is frightened of their own man. What absurdity! Mr Redwood believes in soaking the poor and in preserving the royal yacht. Neither he nor Mr Portillo presents any electoral threat at all. The idea that the voters are crying out for more doses of English nationalism, economic liberalism and social authoritarianism is a fantasy of the Tory right.

Any candidate, however, who could present a plausible solution to the problem of "negative equity" in housing would probably win this election and might well win the general election as well. In 1990 Mr Heseltine collected as many votes as he did because he had promised to abolish the poll tax. Even though he has not come up with a comparable solution to negative equity, he remains the only candidate the Labour Party fears. This almost certainly means that he will not get the job.