Conspirators? Not us, say Tory grandees

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ALL of a sudden the grandees had gone to ground. "Me - a grandee?" said one Tory backbencher in the lobbies last Thursday. "I may have been referred to as a 'senior Tory', I've even been called a 'leading senior Tory' by one newspaper, but grandee - I'm afraid not."

Yet the grandees had been identified in newspaper reports last week as conspirators in the latest plot to oust John Major. They were "preparing" to put the Prime Minister "under intense pressure to stand aside", according to the Financial Times.

So who are they? One executive member of the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs - traditionally the bastion of grandee-dom - demanded a dictionary definition. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a grandee as "a Spanish or Portuguese nobleman of highest rank; person of high rank or eminence". Only Michael Portillo seems remotely to fit the first description while the second, in an increasingly arriviste Conservative Party, encompasses fewer people than it used to.

By the week's end, the leading suspects had taken steps to eliminate themselves from plot speculation. Sir Archie Hamilton (Eton, Coldstream Guards, son of a peer) told one newspaper that the Conservative Party needed a leadership election "like a hole in the head". Robert Cranbourne (Eton, Oxford, and the heir to the Marquess of Salisbury) told another that he would do "whatever I can to help him [Mr Major] and the Conservative Party to win the next election".

How would the plot work? It would, according to the reports, be launched in May, if local election results turned out to be as disastrous for the Tories as predicted. Senior backbenchers would enlist the aid of Lords Cranbourne and Whitelaw, as well as Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary (all three of whom seem, in one way or another, to fit the grandee definition) to press the Prime Minister to stand down in favour of Michael Heseltine, the deputy prime minister.

This bloodless coup, so the theory goes, would please all wings of the Conservative Party: the left would hail Mr Heseltine as a saviour while the right, convinced that the election is already lost, would be happy to let Mr Heseltine avoid "an innings defeat" and save lots of seats.

There are several problems with this theory. First, what's in it for the grandees? Since two have retired to the Lords and the other is standing down at the next election, none of them has a seat to lose. Second, why should Mr Major take any notice of them? After all, he is a three-time election winner - twice among Tory MPs, once in a general election. Third, could a Heseltine succession really be that smooth? Under Conservative party rules, the leadership would be vacant if Mr Major stepped down and anybody would be entitled to stand. John Redwood would almost certainly do so. Then Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Defence, would probably join the contest and the Tories would have a destructive ideological just before a general election.

Other suggestions as to how Mr Major might leave office are not much more plausible. A leadership challenge could not take place before November which would be too late. The "Macmillan" or "walking the plank" theory supposes that Mr Major could stand down voluntarily, provided he could do so with dignity. Health would be one pretext but Mr Major looks in good shape. Another would be a successful Northern Ireland settlement, but that depends on too many imponderables.

The final theory - a Cabinet rebellion - is equally difficult to envisage. "The idea," said one senior source, "that one Cabinet minister is going to start talking to another Cabinet minister in sufficient volume for this to happen is, while technically possible, such an unlikely prospect that it can be discounted."

Backbench MPs are sceptical about the merits of a change. One said last week: "There is no alternative. If anything, the alternatives have got weaker not stronger." Mr Heseltine suffered a defeat in Cabinet last week when Mr Major gave the go-ahead to one of the sceptic right's main demands: the publication of a White Paper on the Government's approach to the EU intergovernmental conference. Mr Portillo has had a bad year with a series of well-publicised miscalculations.

Most Tory MPs last week seemed reluctant to envisage a change of leadership despite the near 40-point opinion poll deficit. One said: "It's a bit like being at school, waiting for a beating. After a time you get fed up with questioning the head master's authority and just want to get on with it. I feel that about the election. If I'm going to get punished by the voters, so be it."