He who dares wins - and he did

John Major's gamble was preceded by years of psychological trauma within the Conservative Party, writes Donald Macintyre
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So he has done it again. Indeed, in a sense he confounded the pundits more convincingly even than in the 1992 general election. Then, he merely defied predictions by winning a clear victory. This time he won against the prescriptions of the large majority of the Tory press - as he could not resist obliquely pointing out in his statement outside Downing Street last night.

Perhaps he even confounded the intimation of his own political mortality that he himself seemed to sense when he made that astounding resignation announcement in the Downing Street gardens 12 days ago. At a meeting in his room at the Commons later that afternoon, he had seemed keen to reassure those round him that he knew the risks involved, that he was keenly aware that the strategy could end in his own demise. "And you can tell people that," he told a shell-shocked party official.

To explain his determination that day, and to identify the factors that led him to take the gamble which he survived last night, you have to look back not only at the long turbulent history of his premiership, but at the changes in the collective psychology of the parliamentary Conservative Party which had begun before the fall of Margaret Thatcher but which accelerated after it.

The rebellions that have dogged John Major's premiership were not just a post-Thatcher phenomenon. In January 1990, for example, the Government's majority dropped from 100 to 36 on the poll tax, the single issue which, more than anything else, brought Thatcher down. But that was precisely the point; she had a formidable majority, which could absorb the shock of such rebellions. And to the extent that the habit of parliamentary rebellion grew during the 1980s, it did so without threatening the fabric of administration.

The change after the 1992 election, however, was twofold: first, every twitch of the backbench muscle, every threat of a revolt, sent a tremor through the whips' office because of the unaccustomed narrowness of Mr Major's majority. Second, the liberating sense of backbencher power with which the very ousting of Thatcher had left the party now became a menace to Mr Major. Suddenly, every insignificant MP felt he was a kingmaker, that the survival of the Prime Minister was his or hers to dispose. To reinforce this heady self-importance, there was a new and insatiable demand for backbench opinions in the freshly constructed television complex at No 4 Millbank, and by the ever-present crews opposite the Commons on College Green. Naturally, the more outrageously critical the soundbite, the greater the chance of a second invitation. Someone, some day, will write an article for the Political Quarterly on the role of electronic news-gathering techniques in the destabilisation of the Conservative Party.

And there was something more. Mr Major's difficulties with the right were compounded with a special sense of betrayal, in that the Thatcherites - not all of whom had followed Peter Lilley and Norman Lamont, two prominent members of the Major 1990 campaign team, in helping to precipitate her downfall - were persuaded to vote for Mr Major as her natural heir. They were encouraged both by her endorsement and by the presence of Norman Tebbit on the Major campaign team.

The right, therefore, found themselves voting for a man who was instinctively a one-nation Tory, and would be described in private only half-jokingly by Kenneth Clarke, a few months after the leadership contest, as the "most left-wing" of the three candidates in the 1990 contest. Only a handful of right-wingers (including, interestingly enough, Edward Leigh and David Evans, two of the most pivotal Redwood backers this time round, who voted in 1990 for Michael Heseltine on the grounds that he had stabbed their heroine in the front rather than the back) refused to buy the prospectus.

One can only imagine the impact on the Thatcherite praetorian guard of seeing the man they had been promised would keep the Thatcherite flame burning travelling to Bonn soon afterwards and asserting that his government would be "at the heart of Europe". Lord Tebbit's contention in last Saturday's Sun that he had only decided not to stand himself in 1990 because he was persuaded by Mr Major that he was a true Euro-sceptic is only the latest and most graphic expression of that sense of treachery on the right.

Mr Major is entitled to feel that all this is unfair on the grand scale; his negotiation of Maastricht opt-outs was, to use Baroness Thatcher's word, "brilliant" . It is all very well for her now to say that she was referring only to the presentation; the fact is that it was only after the "no" vote in the Danish referendum that the poison of rebellion against the treaty began to spread through the party.

But that is history; what he was confronting as he turned his options over in his mind during the Halifax G7 summit last month was that the poison had spread beyond the ideological boundaries of the right: the panic generated in the mainstream of the party by the local council defeats, the self-promoting attacks on his administration by Lady Thatcher and the rage of greedy Tory MPs inflamed by the Major-inspired Nolan report had all, he felt, conspired to make his position untenable. All this against a background in which his own grip on the Cabinet appeared a mockery compared with that of Margaret Thatcher's.

Perhaps that weakness stemmed from his own lack of brutality - exemplified, above all, by his self-destructive failure to remove Mr Lamont after the debacle of the collapse of British ERM membership in autumn 1992. Only Nigel Lawson, at the peak of his power, enjoyed a truly independent existence under Mrs Thatcher; under Mr Major, at different times and to different extents, Mr Heseltine (on whom Mr Major has never felt strong enough up to now to impose the party chairmanship), Mr Clarke and possibly Michael Portillo have all done so.

Finally, of course, Mr Major faced continued rumbling over his leadership, which could not fail to undermine the 1995 party conference as a launchpad for the general election campaign.

It was in these circumstances that Mr Major decided, in effect, to seek a fresh mandate and "clear the air".

On one level, he has done exactly that. But part of what the contest has clarified is precisely the strength of the right. For a man who was thought two weeks ago to be the most junior right-winger in the Cabinet to secure 89 votes is a real achievement. The very size of the Redwood vote, the fact that several of Mr Portillo's supporters - and by all accounts the man himself - thought, at least until yesterday, that he could become the next Prime Minister, the extent to which the decline of party membership has burnt off many of the old-style Tories and left a young, neo-Thatcherite bedrock of party activists, suggest that the new right's hijacking of the Tory bus may not be as temporary as it once seemed.

It is significant that one argument used by the Major camp to persuade Portillo supporters to vote for the Prime Minister was that if Mr Portillo remained loyal now, he would surely inherit the leadership after the general election. The younger MPs - the 1992 intake, and those likely to come in in 1997 - contain many nurtured on a diet of Hayek and Friedman at universities in the late Seventies and who grew up under Thatcher. And now in John Redwood, free to build his base, probably on the backbenches, and develop policy as he chooses, they have a new champion. The huge success of Newt Gingrich in the mid-term congressional elections, moreover, suggests to many MPs on the right that there may be a hunger within the electorate for their certainties.

The probability must be that Mr Major's victory will, at least slowly, begin to reassemble the Tories as a fighting force for the next election. But it is still a divided party, and yesterday's outcome has helped to expose, rather than bury, that division. Given that, it is hard to believe that the outcome has done more than postpone - probably until after the general election - a life-and-death struggle over what sort of Conservative party will enter the 21st century.