A Heseltine premiership, full of rant and daring, might have given the demoralised Tories a lift. The youthful Portillo could conceivably have managed to find the electoral G-spot of the disenchanted middle classes, promising patriotism and pork barrel.
Instead, Labour can contemplate the devil it knows and of whom the electorate is weary, knowing he is now the man they will face at the next election.
The second happy man was, of course, John Major himself. He had faced a potentially lethal challenge from an emerging right-wing star. His predecessor, Baroness Thatcher, failed properly to endorse him. The house magazines of the various Tory factions: the Mail, Telegraph and Times, all called for him to go. Despite this he won well; another success for his personal brand of decent doggedness, mixed with real cunning.
But why did he win? How has it come about that Tory MPs, suffused with Euro-rancour, failed to make the same calculation as Mr Blair? It looks as though Heseltine supporters were overcome with fear that they might end up with Mr Portillo.
For middle-of-the-road Tories inclined to mild Euro-scepticism, there is the fact that the issue at the heart of the party's convulsions is slowly going off the boil. EMU is delayed, probably beyond the end of the decade, Chirac's France has gone cold on aspects of integration (notably ending border controls) and the impetus towards federalism is stalled.
None of this explains how Mr Major is now to re-invigorate the party which has time and again made him look isolated or inept. The next tool to hand is the Cabinet reshuffle promised for today. Presumably, it will be far-reaching, since it offers the prime minister one of the few opportunities remaining to him to restore his authority and the direction of his party.
We shall then have to wait and see whether the 89 Tory MPs who voted yesterday for Mr Redwood are capable of the sort of behaviour which the leader of any party is entitled to expect. Experience suggests not, in which case Mr Major will continue to argue his case to the country across the bear garden of his own party.
No wonder Mr Blair was wearing the wider grin last night.Reuse content