High Noon for the beleaguered sheriff of Downing Street

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The Independent Online
THERE IS logic, and there is politics. Logic insists that these results tell us precisely nothing about the Tories' ability to win the next election, which is years away. Logic adds that millions of people voted about local issues of which Westminster knows nothing, and that this was not a referendum on the Prime Minister. Finally, logic coolly notes that neither of the two Big Facts - the economic recovery and the electoral timescale - have been affected by a mid-term protest.

So much for logic. But this is no seminar, it's a political melodrama, with a rhythm all its own. And these results were shockingly bad, worse than even Tory pessimists had braced themselves for. It was partly abstentionism - Tory England voting with its bottom. But the Labour and, especially, the Liberal Democrat advances give the Tory lynch-mob the excuse that it has been looking for.

Mr Major played John Wayne on the Downing Street doorstep. But now, behind every irate MP, there will be a gang of ejected councillors and bruised local workers fingering their holsters.

The five weeks' delay before the European and Eastleigh results means that the mounting sense of menace cannot be easily dissipated. If they are as appalling as these ones were, the next question is whether Mr Major would resign or stand and fight. He is said to be in a bellicose, almost Wagnerian mood about the irresponsibility of his party and would like to confront it bloodily: back me, you idiots, or accept that you are heading for a decade in the wilderness.

But then again, he has to send out the message that he will not go gentle into that good night. The threat of bringing down a Tory armageddon is his best weapon against the waverers. It is also possible to find people who are certain he would go within 24 hours of a terrible European result. 'It will happen swiftly, with dignity,' said one. That too is plausible. Mr Major's mood seems to be volatile - sometimes defiant, sometimes depressive. I suspect that he himself has not yet decided finally what to do, and that anyone else who claims to know how he will react is talking nonsense.

But if he wants a fight, it looks increasingly as if he will get one. The right remains split, which is good for Mr Major. Yesterday, though, supporters of Michael Portillo were again discussing the conditions under which they would support Michael Heseltine who, despite a strong restatement of One Nation Toryism from Kenneth Clarke, remains the likeliest successor. The latest idea is that he should be asked to promise the Tory party a referendum before Britain joins a European single currency.

This would have huge symbolic value to the anti-Maastricht camp, and might provide the basis for an armistice in the Conservative civil war. We should not rule out the possibility that Mr Major will counter- bid.

Meanwhile, some bogus arguments against a leadership change are echoing round Westminster. There is the claim that it is 'unconstitutional' for 'mere' backbenchers to depose a national leader who has been chosen by the people. This is hooey. Mr Major went to the country at the head of a parliamentary party whose subsequent victory involved a whole range of factors, including Opposition tax policies and the image of the then Labour leader.

April 1992 was a personal triumph for him but it was not a personal mandate. He depended then and depends now on the support of Tory backbenchers. Under our system MPs are never 'mere'. They are the sole democratic link between the administration and the people and when it comes to leaders, they can do what they like.

A sounder argument is that the anti-Major campaign is too influenced by forces outside the elected system, above all by aggressive and powerful news media with their own agenda. That would be a reasonable line of counter-attack for the Prime Minister to pursue.

The other argument being used against a challenge is that it would disgust the voters. But this is tricky for Major loyalists, since they also insist voters will forget their anti- Tory anger by 1996-97. You can't have it both ways. If voters have short memories when it comes to recession and tax-rises, then it is fair to ask why they won't forget this leadership controversy too.

Logic again. Ultimately, though, the Prime Minister's survival won't depend on cool thinking, but on the instinctive, emotional reactions of Britain's mid-term electorate of last resort, the blowhards and drama- queens of the parliamentary Conservative Party. It's going to be a short and sweltering summer.

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