The Conservative leadership crisis intensified yesterday, as right and left in the party moved against what they see as an increasingly likely takeover by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade.
Mr Heseltine's main rival, Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Employment, admitted that a "pretty fevered" Tory party would not win the next election unless it "pulls its socks up", while the centre-left Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, repeated through "friends" her intention to contest the leadership, should John Major be forced out of Downing Street.
Tonight's Panorama profile of Mr Portillo will further stoke the flames of speculation. In it, Kenneth Baker, former Tory chairman, denies that he would split the party as leader:
"One of the things about the Tory party is their capacity to unite behind a leader and I am quite sure the Conservative party would support Michael Portillo."
Lord Parkinson, another former Tory chairman, reports what Baroness Thatcher is said to have told Mr Portillo's recent birthday party: "We brought you up, we were responsible for your upbringing. We expect great things of you. You will not disappoint us."
As William Hill, the bookmakers, reduced the odds on Mr Heseltine becoming the next Tory leader, replacing Mr Portillo as favourite, Mrs Shephard's re-entry in the undeclared Tory leadership race, made through "a ministerial colleague" in the Mail on Sunday, helped keep the pressure on the Prime Minister. Mrs Shephard could not be contacted yesterday.
Further evidence of the momentum building behind Mr Heseltine's undeclared candidacy is the emergence of a new "Stop Heseltine" campaign on the right.
It includes Sir Nicholas Bonsor, who publicly warned last week against creating an opening for Mr Heseltine, James Cran, the MP for Beverley, and former ministers Sir Archie Hamilton and Michael Spicer. Mr Cran and Mr Spicer were the unofficial whip and spokesman for the Euro-sceptics through the months of rebellion on the Maastricht Bill.
One of the group complained privately: "Nobody is talking for the Prime Minister - who is the bulwark against Heseltine.
"I don't like some of the Prime Minister's policies, but I fear greatly what will happen if Heseltine takes over. We will be hung out, dried and kippered. He will wield such power that there will be absolutely nobody to challenge him. He will deliver a Heath Mark II."
Meanwhile, Mr Major is being increasingly deserted by the left of the party. Edwina Currie, another former minister, who supported Mr Heseltine in 1990, told yesterday's Sunday Telegraph that Mr Major was "a good, decent, honourable man. But perhaps politics in the mid-1990s needs a sharper edge than that. He has been in the job five years. Maybe his family will be saying to him that is enough." And she tells Panorama: "If Michael Portillo became our leader before the election, we would lose."
Despite the new fever among Tory MPs, the fundamentals of the leadership question have not changed.
Any likely replacement of Mr Major would be unacceptable to one or other wing of the party. The Prime Minister's ambiguous stance on Europe means that only he could hold together a divided party - and yet it weakens his reputation as a leader. Mr Portillo's paraphrase of it yesterday approached parody: "The Cabinet has taken a decision, led by the Prime Minister, which is to take the decision when a matter is presented for us to decide upon."
Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said on GMTV yesterday: "The problem isn't the leaders, although Mr Major is a weak leader, the problem is the Conservative Party."
Mr Major faces another test in a Commons vote early next month on the planned withdrawal of help with mortgages for the unemployed and sick. Threatened with another embarrassing defeat, the government has decided to exempt people on invalidity benefit and those caring for elderly or sick relatives from the changes.
But a poll of 100 Tory backbenchers for the BBC's On The Record casts doubt on whether this retreat will be enough. The poll found 16 Tory MPs wanted the change dropped altogether - easily enough to wipe out the Government's present majority of eight.
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The contenders: William Hill odds on form runners as event nears
The front runner to take over if Mr Major is toppled this year, which is why he does not strive too officiously to keep him alive. Neither, of course, must he be seen to be doing anything to undermine the man who beat him to the prize in 1990. His strategy is to wait for a desperate party to turn to him. The candidate Tony Blair would least like to face.
A candidate who looks unstoppable, should Mr Major survive until the next general election. A Euro-sceptic, he has tried to broaden his appeal beyond the Thatcherite bunker, but he has shown an unsureness of touch - for instance, when he said last year that Britain was the only country where you could not "buy an A-level".
A previous favourite who has since collided with two realities. One is that he is pro-European, and prepared to say things which fellow-federalist Mr Heseltine has avoided. The other is that his government jobs have made him unpopular with nurses, doctors and ambulance workers, teachers, the police and now taxpayers. And Consett.
The fastest-rising candidate. As Education Secretary, Mrs Shephard has outshone her predecessor, John Patten, although still on probation with teachers and parents. Her eyes might be fixed on a leadership contest after the general election, when Mr Heseltine would be "too old". Like him, she is on the left but appeals to some on the centre-right.
Definitely the dark horse: able, intelligent and good at cultivating MPs and journalists, but struggling to fit into his round-hole brief as National Heritage Secretary. His other handicap is that he is also firmly on the left of the party, although he is keen to learn lessons from Newt Gingrich, right-wing Speaker of the US House of Representatives.Reuse content