Election '97: Tories fear poll defeat will ignite vicious power battle

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Senior Conservatives are concerned that the party could become embroiled in an ugly and damaging battle for the party leadership if John Major goes down to defeat in next week's election.

While a number of Cabinet ministers are already positioning themselves for leadership battle after the election, some party grandees are considering how best to avert the anarchy that would follow if Mr Major decided to stand down in the immediate aftermath of a Labour win.

Some of the Prime Minister's friends would advise him to do just that - leave his own party in the lurch, let them fight it out, and, possibly, destroy the party's chances of returning to office for another decade. Others are putting the future of the party before their loyalty to Mr Major, and are considering an appeal to urge him to stay on for as long as possible in a move to give the party time to settle down and make a mature judgement about its long-term future.

A number of senior Conservatives would prefer Mr Major to stay on as leader until the autumn. This would give the new intake of inexperienced MPs time to measure the quality of the contenders for the succession and to reflect on the mistakes that had been made during the campaign.

Some Tory moderates suspect that John Redwood's supporters would prefer an early contest, in order to "bounce' him into the succession.

But the very idea that he might be helping Mr Redwood could be enough to keep Mr Major from a precipitate resignation.

Yesterday's London Evening Standard reported that a "Save John Major" group of ministers, including Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, and two Northern Ireland Office Ministers, Sir Patrick Mayhew and Michael Ancram, were considering an appeal to get Mr Major to steer the party into calmer waters.

Naturally, Tory officials were quick to dismiss that notion because it smacked of defeatism at a time when party managers were arguing that the party was making something of a mid-campaign comeback.

There were suggestions at the weekend that attempts were also being made to prevent a right-wing "coup" on the executive of the backbench 1922 Committee. The chairman of the 1922 committee executive is a key figure in the timing and management of Conservative leadership elections. If so disposed, he could help fend off a challenge until the autumn.

Speculation has been so rife about plots that Mr Redwood spoke out at the weekend, denying he was already preparing for a swift post-election strike.

While no minister would be foolish enough to set up a formal campaign and risk getting caught red-handed - close confidants of the leading contenders are making discreet preparations for all the eventualities.

The one thing that some contenders do not seem prepared for is a Conservative victory, with Mr Major staying on for another five years as prime minister.

One of his friends told The Independent this week that if that happened, a lot of conspirators could expect to get their come-uppance and be out of the Government without much ceremony.

There is undoubtedly a lot of anger in the Major camp about the disloyalty that has been shown during the campaign and by the trouble that has been caused by senior figures such as Kenneth Clarke and Michael Howard, who have this week been in open conflict.

Mr Major has repeatedly refused to confirm that any of his ministers will retain their Cabinet seats after the election. If he is elected, a general purge is possible, under cover of giving younger people a chance of high office and preparing a new generation for party leadership in the millennium.