Major's big gamble pays off

Aitken goes as PM marks leadership victory with reshuffle
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The Independent Online

Political Editor

John Major, re-elected last night as Conservative leader by a decisive two-to-one majority, will today announce a deck-clearing Cabinet reshuffle which will include the resignation of the embattled Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Jonathan Aitken.

The Prime Minister secured 218 votes from Tory MPs, to 89 for his right- wing challenger, John Redwood, in a victory which almost certainly eliminates any threat to his leadership before the next general election. It was won at the cost of exposing the depth of the fault-line within the party over Europe, domestic policy and his style of premiership, and the Opposition was quick to claim that the Tories are new "two parties" .

However, Mr Major's opponents on the Tory right swiftly pledged to back him in a united fight against Labour.

The Prime Minister secured the support of more than two- thirds of the parliamentary party and lifted the threat of a further contest. As jubilant supporters last night celebrated the outcome of Mr Major's gamble, he declared outside 10 Downing Street that "the time for division is over".

The higher than expected vote for Mr Redwood vindicated his decision to challenge for the leadership and establishes the former Welsh Secretary as a new champion of the right. That was seen as a setback for Michael Portillo, the Employment Secretary. Baroness Thatcher congratulated Mr Major on his victory but went out of her way to commend Mr Redwood's "very respectable vote".

The main surprise of yesterday's vote was that only 22 Tory MPs abstained from voting for either candidate, suggesting that the centre-left kept their word by backing Mr Major against the right instead of withholding support in the hope of securing a second ballot and opening the contest to Michael Heseltine.

Although today's reshuffle could tilt the Cabinet slightly to the right, Mr Major is expected to appoint a centre-left loyalist, Alastair Goodlad, as Chief Whip. Left-wingers were arguing that the loyalty they had shown Mr Major should prevent him using the reshuffle merely to appease the right. Michael Howard was strongly tipped as the new Foreign Secretary, to replace Douglas Hurd, who is retiring, though Malcolm Rifkind was not ruled out.

While the election has probably extinguished Mr Heseltine's last hope of the leadership, he is certain to have an enhanced role in government - possibly as de facto deputy Prime Minister - in recognition of his and his supporters' loyalty.

Mr Major held a surprise three-hour meeting with Mr Heseltine yesterday morning as voting was in full swing, provoking speculation in Westminster that he was seeking to persuade him to accept the Tory party chairmanship, possibly while also remaining as President of the Board of Trade.

There were counter-suggestions in Whitehall that it would be impossible for Mr Heseltine to combine the DTI job, which he is keen to retain, with the party chairmanship. If he does not become chairman, Brian Mawhinney, also tipped for the Home Office if Mr Howard moves to the Foreign Office, is a possible chairman.

Sir George Gardiner, leader of the right-of-centre 92 Group and a declared Redwood supporter, urged Mr Major last night to readmit Mr Redwood to the Cabinet. But it was thought unlikely in Whitehall that Mr Major would make such an offer - or that Mr Redwood would accept if he did.

Mr Major said in Downing street last night: "I received the largest share of the votes that any Conservative leadership candidate has received in any seriously contested election. I believe that has put to rest any question and any speculation about the leadership of the Conservative Party up to and beyond the next general election."

He added: "It has aired matters of important policy interest to all of us, but the election is now over. The message that I would give to every Conservative ... is that the time for division is over."

And in a tilt at the chorus of condemnation of his leadership from the Tory press: "This election has been decided by Members of Parliament in Westminster, not commentators outside Westminster... I believe that is the right democratic way to determine these elections."

Mr Redwood said: "He won fair and square under the rules and I pay tribute to that victory. I and my colleagues have fought a strong campaign. We have raised many important issues."

And his rival for the right-wing crown, Michael Portillo, declared: "[Mr Major] took a very big risk and I must say I am very relieved that it has worked out so well with what I would regard as a very clear result.

"What is perfectly clear is that the Prime Minister is going to lead us into the next election... and I hope John Major will be the winner in that election."



John Major 218

John Redwood 89

Abstentions 8

Spoilt papers 12