Politics: Tories in a flutter over the olive grove conspiracy

Here is some news that William Hague, the youthful Tory leader, may not enjoy. In a Spanish villa owned by one of the party's most famous conspirators, John Major and Chris Patten, the `lost leader' of the Tory left, have been talking this week. Is this the beginning of `the Candeleda coup', designed to remove Hague, as some Tory MPs think - or simply a convivial gathering of friends? Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, investigates.
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The Independent Online
The whisper at Westminster was clear enough. The former prime minister and the former governor of Hong Kong had made a secret rendezvous, meeting up at the Spanish home of Tristan Garel-Jones, their mutual friend and former minister for Europe.

The reputation of Mr Garel-Jones for conspiracy is awesome: the Tory right still blame him for the Single European Act, entry into the Exchange Rate Mechanism, the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, and the succession of John Major.

So if Major, Patten and Garel-Jones were in secret conclave, according to the theorists, that could only mean one thing: they were plotting the imminent downfall of the hapless William Hague, in the olive groves of Candeleda, a village west of Madrid. Unfairly or not, Mr Hague is already being written off by some of his own MPs as a lightweight, unable to cope with Tony Blair. Mr Patten returns to live in London shortly. It is assumed that, if he wants to return to the Commons, there will be no problem about finding him a seat: indeed, Mr Major's own Huntingdon constituency has been mentioned.

When he answered The Independent's telephone call yesterday, Mr Garel- Jones -- naturally - could not have been more dismissive.

"You're about a million miles off the mark," he said. However, in his fluent Spanish, he then called for a cordless phone, "so I can tell the boys".

After a slight pause, he announced breathlessly to Mr Major, Norma, and Mr Patten: "This is Tony Bevins who's ringing to say that there is talk in Westminster that there is a conspiracy here." He chuckled, and Mr Major could be heard in the background, saying: "I told you ..."

Mr Garel-Jones said he was trying hard not to laugh, but he laughed and Mr Major said: "Just tell him that we're sitting here with a drink."

"Yeah," said Mr Garel-Jones, "we're sitting here with a drink in the sun, trying to decide ... The conspiracy consists of this ..."

At that point, Mr Patten joined in the general badinage, shouting: "Tell him what the former governor is doing."

"The governor is reading The Principles of Gardening by Hugh Johnson and Roads to Santiago by Kate Nurtbloom," said Mr Major.

Then, Mr Garel-Jones added: "They are all being forced to read my article in last week's Spectator, advocating that bull-fighting should be taught in all primary schools in Britain.

"And the main topic of discussion is who is going to walk down to the village, five kilometres; that's Plan A. Plan B is those who are not walking to the village, who will be led by me, who will go down in a motor car.

"An aperitif will be taken in a bar called La Capra ... several aperitifs I hear someone [the former governor] cry ... and we will then return from luncheon and we will then ... [it sounds like a suggestion from the former Prime Minister] sleep for quite a long time, and then we may go to a village this afternoon and buy some pottery."

It is then put to Mr Garel-Jones that the big question is how the former governor is going to walk the five kilometres back to the House of Commons.

Mr Garel-Jones repeats the question to his audience, and says firmly. "Well I regret to tell you that it has not yet been on the agenda." Note the operative word, "yet".

But, then, there is an ever bigger question: How the former governor is going to walk the further six kilometres into the leadership of the Tory party? "Well, that has not been on the agenda either," says Mr Garel- Jones, briskly but cheerfully. "So I am sorry to disappoint you."

There are many colleagues at Westminster who will find it hard to take seriously the suggestion that in the secluded privacy of a Spanish villa, after a fine dinner, finer wine and the best possible brandy, Tristan Garel-Jones's house guests could avoid talking about the current dire straits of the Conservative Party.

And the possible succession of the former governor of Hong Kong to the leadership.