Dorrell first out of stalls in leadership race

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Stephen Dorrell yesterday stole a march on the rest of the field for the Tory leadership contest - Michael Howard, Malcolm Rifkind, Michael Portillo, Gillian Shephard and John Redwood - by allowing "friends" to claim that he wanted to see a fundamental shift in the Tory position on Europe.

Only a week before, it was reported that Mr Howard had been planning to use an early opportunity to call for renegotiation of Britain's position in Europe. By going public first, Mr Dorrell succeeded in outflanking the Home Secretary.

Any doubt that a leadership contest is already under way should be dispelled by Mr Howard's diary for 1996 - he spoke at more constituency association lunches and dinners than any other cabinet minister in the past three months. Central Office said his work rate with the constituencies had almost doubled. Some Tory MPs are already informally working for his election as leader.

Mr Howard was responsible for bringing to a head the internal tensions in the Cabinet on Europe at two highly charged cabinet meetings last month. The Home Secretary ambushed Kenneth Clarke at a cabinet meeting on 5 December with a demand that the Chancellor should produce a paper on the convergence criteria for the single European currency.

There were briefings by "friends" of Mr Howard, which clearly showed that he was the man to stand up to Mr Clarke. However, Mr Clarke then pulled a trick on the Cabinet. Ministers had been expecting a paper in the new year but the Chancellor delivered it at a meeting on 19 December.

His paper was torn to shreds by his colleagues and the Chancellor was ordered to return with a fresh paper in the new year. The significant factor was the number of ministers who now sided with Mr Howard. Mr Dorrell was among them. Others who chipped in included Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education.

Mr Clarke was able to claim a victory, because the Cabinet agreed to stick to the existing policy on Europe, but the impression was of a chancellor at bay. The intervention by Mr Dorrell was seen as an attempt by John Major to force Mr Clarke to move from the existing "wait and see" approach to a single currency, which the Euro-sceptics said yesterday was "untenable" for the election.

It will not be the first time Mr Major has used Mr Dorrell as his stalking horse. Last summer, Mr Dorrell called for a referendum on Europe when it was being resisted by the Chancellor. Within a few weeks, Mr Major had persuaded Mr Clarke to accept it. By using Mr Dorrell, the Prime Minister could engineer a change of policy without risking a direct conflict between himself and his Chancellor.

The difficulty for Mr Major is to reach an agreed policy without forcing resignations from the pro-Clarke wing of the Tory party. The greatest fear among the Euro-sceptics is that they will be blamed for an election defeat.

Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence called for "unity, unity, unity" at the 1996 party conference. The aim was to close cabinet ranks against the former minister Mr Redwood and backbench Euro-sceptics who were putting their principles above the party's election chances. Mr Redwood has since gone relatively quiet.

But the ground is moving under the Chancellor who is becoming more isolated in the Cabinet. Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, has stood by the Chancellor, but also has his own eye on the leadership election. Mr Major is likely to call his next-door neighbour for a chat soon, to discuss the idea raised by Mr Dorrell.

Stephen Dorrell

Profile: Aged 44, Secretary of State for Health. Dripping wet but drying out fast.

Campaign strategy: Meets backbenchers for quiet chat in his rooms; bidding for centre-right ground with former Clarke votes in the bag. Carefully timed briefing by "friends" to Daily Telegraph - noticeboard of the Euro-sceptics.

Form: Coming up hard on the rails; still to prove himself with the sceptics.

Odds - 6:1

Michael Howard

Profile: Aged 55, Home Secretary - right-winger; impeccable Euro-sceptic, with long-term hostility to federal Europe.

Campaign strategy: Rubber-chicken circuit in safe Tory seats; leading Cabinet Euro-rebel; the man to stand up to Ken Clarke. Careful to avoid being seen as disloyal.

Form: Cunning runner, favourite for the big race.

Odds 2:1 on.

Malcolm Rifkind

Profile: Aged 50, Foreign Secretary - Majorite centrist, trimming to the Euro-sceptic right.

Campaign strategy: Uses FO as platform for world statesman image; made big impression with speech on new Atlantic alliance with America.

Form: Dark horse, coming strong but could fall at first fence - his majority in Edinburgh Pentlands a vulnerable 4,290.

Odds 10:1

John Redwood

Profile: Aged 45 - Thatcherite Euro-sceptic with a penchant for populism - done all the running since resigning from Cabinet.

Campaign strategy: Has met every backbench Tory MP from the 1992 intake in assiduous campaign to dispel "Vulcan" image. Lost against Major but showed mettle.

Form: A stayer, who could still come through. Second favourite.

Odds - 4:1

Michael Portillo

Profile: Aged 43, Secretary of State for Defence - hard-right Thatcherite torch-bearer.

Campaign strategy: Keeping head down since "gaffe" about SAS at party conference. Assiduously courts loyal friends on Euro-sceptic right.

Form: Few outings make it difficult to judge, but has still has eye on main prize. Younger than the rest of the field.

Odds - 4:1

Gillian Shephard

Profile: Aged 56, Secretary of State for Education and Employment - a Majorette ready to show the men a thing or two.

Campaign strategy: The Joan of Arc of the Cabinet, fighting Ken Clarke for more money for schools; Major over his demands for more grammar schools.

Form: Doughty fighter with no realistic chance of winning. But they said that about Thatcher.

Odds - 100:1.

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