TORY LEADERSHIP ELECTION: Conservative Party settles down for

Relief greets Major's 'shrewd political move'; THE GRASS ROOTS
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There was an overwhelming sense of relief at the Conservative Party grassroots yesterday that John Major has finally decided to force his political enemies to put up or shut up.

A straw poll of about sixty Conservative constituency association chairmen revealed most believe the Prime Minister is right to have launched a pre- emptive strike to flush out dissidents and halt the continuing debilitating speculation over his leadership.

But the party was divided on the wisdom of a stalking-horse candidate standing against him. Some people believe the party should unite behind an unchallenged Mr Major, while others feel there should be a proper contest in which the rebels could be comprehensively beaten.

The question of who should succeed Mr Major in the event of his being badly weakened in a leadership battle remains vexed. The foremost name was Michael Portillo but Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke, Gillian Shephard had support.

John Morgan, Brecon and Radnor association chairman, said: "I think he [Major] was quite brilliant in calling for a leadership election. I would shoot all stalking-horses myself. I would hope he would get back with overwhelming support; obviously there's going to be a few narrow-minded Euro-sceptics that don't want him to succeed. If we had a stronger majority we could sack them couldn't we?"

David Jackson, Boothferry chairman, said Mr Major "had to call a halt to the uncertainty and the antics of a certain lunatic fringe in the party. We had to once and for all call their bluff."

A stalking-horse was necessary because opponents needed "thrashing good and proper". If it came to the question of a successor the most likely person would be Mr Heseltine, although the party would have to explain to the electorate why it was choosing someone previously rejected for the leadership.

Alastair Orr, Stirling deputy chairman, said: "I would say this is an ideal opportunity to face down his critics and I fully expect him to emerge from this much stronger and even more in charge of his party. I cannot really foresee a stalking-horse.

"The response here in Scotland is four square behind the Prime Minister ... I certainly don't envisage anybody else in charge of the party in a fortnight's time."

Maurice Baylis, North West Leeds chairman, said: "Yes [he was right to have called a leadership election] because the media were calling the tune and only reporting negative things. Probably there ought to be a stalking-horse candidate because it would let people see how strong John Major's support in the house really is."

Sheila Scott, Hendon North chairman, said: "It's a pre- emptive strike and it should clarify the situation in the run up to the general election. I think there should be an election which I hope Mr Major will win decisively. I don't think there is any question of Mr Major not being successful but in the unlikely event that he were I would like him to be succeeded by a woman and in particular Mrs Shephard."

Simon Owens, Richmond and Barnes chairman, said there was no point in a minor candidate standing but perhaps there was some logic in a more powerful candidate declaring himself and being convincingly beaten.

Gareth Dadd, Langbaurgh association treasurer said: "There's been eight to ten rebellious self-opinionated political pygmies on the sidelines and he's said come out and let's get it over and done with. I think it's a very, very courageous step to take.

"My heart says no [opponent] but practically there's got to be one so we can get it over and done with and I'm confident that Major will get the backing. Certainly not Heseltine, he's too corporate thinking. I'd say Portillo if he had a couple more years in the Cabinet under his belt. Practically and electorally I think it should be Gillian Shephard. She strikes a chord with the electorate and there's no nonsense, she's a very stern lady."

John Thomas, Thanet South chairman, says if Mr Major were weakened in the contest he would like to see Jonathan Aitken, his MP, stand "but with the inquiry I don't suppose he'll be putting his name."

Tom King's constituency party chairman, Roger Williams, in Bridgwater, said the election was a shrewd political move. "They're going to look foolish if there's no candidate and it will show the depth of their support, which is probably not as great as as many people think."

Ron Gill, Norman Lamont's constituency party agent in Kingston upon Thames, said: "I don't think there's anyone in the Cabinet that I prefer to John Major. Michael Heseltine is too intuitive. You don't need that in a Prime Minister. You need somebody who's going to sit and cogitate over decisions rather than rush around."

Richard Wrigley, Colne Valley chairman, says Mr Major "was right to resign but I'm disappointed that he is standing. He doesn't seem to be prepared to listen to the grassroots."

He hopes the party "has the guts to do something". The grassroots did not want to get rid of Mrs [Margaret] Thatcher, he said, but it still happened. Mr Wrigley's ideal successor would be Mr Portillo.