TORY LEADERSHIP ELECTION: Right-wingers face dilemma over Heseltine

Patricia Wynn Davies looks at the consequences of yesterday's challenge to the Prime Minister
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The Independent Online
"For the first time in 30 years, I'm a 'don't know'. It's a nightmare." That was the dilemma for Sir Teddy Taylor, former whipless Euro-sceptic but one who never let his rebellions cloud his personal liking for the Prime Minister.

The problem with voting for John Redwood, whose policies Sir Teddy backs to the hilt, is the fear of letting in Michael Heseltine on a second ballot.

Now that Mr Redwood has thrown in his hat, the Prime Minister's Cowley Street headquarters is urgently cranking up its efforts to stop right- wingers and the Euro-sceptics jumping ship.

Sir Peter Tapsell, a 1990 Heseltine campaign manager turned anti-monetarist Euro-sceptic, confirmed yesterday that his support for Mr Major remained undiminished. Sir Peter, the MP for Lindsey East, convened the Fresh Start meeting a fortnight ago and was horrified when a handful of MPs sent it so disastrously wrong for the Prime Minister. "I am a Euro-sceptic, and I believe that John Major is one too," he said.

John Marshall, the MP for Hendon South, said: "John Major deserves a vote of confidence, for what he has achieved over Ireland and for the economy."

In a reference to Mr Redwood's televised Westminster press conference, Mr Marshall added: "One who surrounds himself with the likes of Teresa Gorman and Tony Marlow [two of the most strident "whipless ones"] is not someone who is in touch with public opinion."

The notion that Mr Redwood might lose support by being so publicly identified with the most fervent breed of Euro-sceptic was dismissed by Bill Walker, the MP for Tayside North, another right-winger present at the Redwood launch. The former Secretary of State for Wales would get a lot of support. "Don't under-estimate it," he warned.

Mr Redwood got the unqualified support of his constituency party yesterday, while right-wingers were busy spotlighting his selling points to the traditionalist centre of the party: his dry economics, his respect for institutions and the Church, his impeccable credentials as a family man, quite apart from his cleverness, without being a libertarian.

His dramatic intervention has uncannily relieved tension in a helplessly divided party. John Butterfill, MP for Bournemouth West, admitted he felt a sense of relief that there would now be a "proper" contest.

Mr Butterfill reported that a weekend of discussions with his constituency association executive, at his local Conservative club, and in his surgery had produced not a single voice against the Prime Minister.

But the MP appeared to sound a note of caution when he said that Mr Major would be "adequately endorsed" as party leader.

Viscount Cranborne, Leader of the Lords and Mr Major's campaign manager, declared from the front steps of 13 Cowley Street: "There is only one man behind whom the whole party can unite, and that is John Major."

Another Major aide described Mr Redwood's supporters as "Ward 8 of Broadmoor."

Right-wingers responded that Mr Major's "no change" television interview on Sunday had done him no good at all, and while Mr Heseltine, Michael Portillo and Kenneth Clarke lined up to support the Prime Minister as their candidate, there were more ominous private predictions.

Anti-Heseltine right-wingers are still working flat out in the hope that enough support will coalesce around John Major to deny Mr Heseltine an opening on a second ballot.

The "Heseltinies", who will abstain in droves, will pose a problem. One MP suggested yesterday that Mr Redwood could secure 40 votes and 100 abstentions.

In the eyes of many that would be enough fatally to wound the Prime Minister and make it impossible for him to enter a second ballot - although there was some insistence yesterday that Mr Major would not necessarily go quietly at that point.

Such an idea did not appear to be cutting much ice yesterday, as right- wingers in the Portillo camp considered their options. It was not the case, they argued, that Mr Redwood's candidacy ruled out the entry of Mr Portillo on a second ballot, and it was clear that they urgently want the Secretary of State for Employment to do so.

They believe the presence of two right-wingers in a second ballot would not necessarily allow Mr Heseltine to win, because he would need to secure 51 per cent of the vote against the two right-wing candidates. The entry of Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, could also upset the figures.

Amid predictions of the possibility of a third, run-off, ballot two days after the second, Mr Heseltine remained above the fray, doubtless watching and listening, while his supporters gathered intelligence. "Mr Redwood's entry strengthens the Prime Minister's hand," said an enigmatic Richard Ottoway, Mr Heseltine's parliamentary private secretary.

Other MPs wondered whether to take it seriously. The Labour left-winger Dennis Skinner declared: "The fate of the British nation is going to be decided by plotters in the Tory party."