Divided they stood, divided they fell: Stephen Castle on the dismal Tory showing in the elections

THE TORY spindoctors had hoped for something rather different; after all, Thursday's local elections could hardly be as bad as the predicted disaster. In the event, Friday brought the Tories' worst electoral defeat in memory, forcing Mr Major into yet another defence of his leadership.

Even at the opening of the Channel link, protocol demanded a conversation with - of all people - Baroness Thatcher. For Mr Major, last week brought little sign of light at the end of the tunnel.

In the 1990 local elections, Lady Thatcher was let off the hook by a complacent Labour Party machine which allowed the Tories to trumpet victories in Westminster and Wandsworth, transforming the Sun's early edition headline 'It's Blue Murder for Maggie' into 'Kinnock Poll Axed' by the end of the print run.

This year there was no mercy; Walworth Road fed fresh figures through to its spokesman, Jack Straw, who announced Tory defeats on TV ahead of the broadcasters. The Conservatives' most loyal supporter, the Daily Express, went where once the Sun had havered; 'Blue Murder' its headline thundered.

The Conservatives should not have been surprised by their electoral rebuff. As Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, conceded last Friday, the message that 'Conservative Councils Cost You Less' was not easy to sell to the electorate when the Government was in the process of levying VAT on fuel and increasing direct taxes.

Meanwhile, the Government was demonstrating a growing resemblance to the Labour Party of the early Eighties. 'It is,' said an ex-minister, 'a complete re-run of their disintegration. We will be heading for special conferences at Wembley next.'

Even before Thursday's hammer blow many Tories were on the verge of despair. One senior Tory described the mood as 'beyond the bounds of rational analysis', adding: 'I sense panic in the air and I don't think No 10 realises how big that panic is going to be.' Another commented: 'From D- Day Spam fritters to the resurrection of Arthur Scargill - we've done it all.' According to a third, there was 'a growing sense of internal collapse, of a disappearance of discipline and authority in the party and its ability to stick to a given path.' Last week brought three visible signs of disintegration within two days. First, Gillian Shephard, the Minister of Agriculture, publicly admitted that Cabinet colleagues were canvassing for the leadership, and implied that a fifth of Tory MPs no longer supported the Prime Minister. The intervention may have been intended to help the party leader, but then so was the disastrous statement in the 1983 General Election campaign by Jim Mortimer, then general secretary of the Labour Party, that Michael Foot remained his party's leader.

Then there was David Evans, a member of the executive of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs, who called for the sacking of the party chairman and two other colleagues. 'David,' said one colleague, 'did not mean to be disloyal. He was unable to help himself.'

Mr Evans had, in fact, been quoted as saying exactly the same thing two weeks earlier in this newspaper. He had repeated it publicly to Tory MPs and at a Westminster lunch for businessmen. Yet, despite these warnings no one had either the nous or the clout to silence him.

Thirdly - and most seriously for Mr Major - came the almost open defiance by Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and darling of the Eurosceptics, of the Cabinet's line on a single European currency. After complaints from Number 10, Mr Portillo clarified his position on the issue but declined to retract.

The fact that Mr Portillo opposes monetary union may surprise few and his comments may, as he later claimed, have been 'telescoped', but they overstepped Cabinet collective responsibility. Why had the minister chosen that particularly moment to stake out his position on an issue which does not confront the Government for years?

At Westminster the conclusion was near-unanimous. One centre-left Tory said: 'He has started his leadership campaign. Portillo should be taken out and shot.'

Mr Portillo's comments seemed designed both to remind the Eurosceptics of his political presence, and to address criticism from the hard- right of the party that Eurosceptic ministers have sold out.

The Chief Secretary pleased some soulmates who want him to raise his profile, to stand in any forthcoming leadership contest and (by getting a sizeable vote) protect the interests of the right in a Heseltine administration. But this strategy involves risks. As one right-winger put it: 'I think there would be outrage if the right thought he was flirting with a pact with Heseltine. That is precisely the sort of shoddy deal against which the whole political climate is reacting.' A right-wing minister added: 'There is a direct correlation between stupidity and those who adhere to the Heseltine/Portillo dream ticket'.

Two other leading cabinet Eurosceptics, John Redwood, Secretary of State for Wales, and Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, were angry that Mr Portillo broke ranks, apparently for his own ends. Mr Lilley was said to be particularly annoyed by Mr Portillo's attempt to go further than his Eurosceptic cabinet colleagues and breach an unspoken deal.

The truth is that the Eurosceptics are deeply split between those who want to keep Mr Major - for fear of a Heseltine or Clarke premiership - and those who believe the Prime Minister to be doomed. MPs arguing against a challenge include staunch Maastricht rebels such as Sir Teddy Taylor, MP for Southend East.

These MPs - who have no credible candidate - want to keep Mr Major because he will not take on the right, unlike his potential successors. Thus, in a peverse way, Mr Major's political weakness is his one remaining strength.

The declaration by John Carlisle, MP for Luton North, that he is ready to stand against Mr Major, greatly increased the chances of a contest, which - should enough MPs vote against him or abstain - would fatally wound Mr Major.

But it is not clear that the necessary 34 Conservative MPs will write to the chairman of the 1922 committee, Sir Marcus Fox, to request a leadership contest, particularly since MPs fear that their identities might be leaked. In the words of one minister: 'You need 34 brave people. I doubt if you will find that number of brave MPs in Parliament.'

Meanwhile, prospects for the Conservatives look gloomy. Thursday's disaster will inevitably have a knock-on effect on the European elections. Many workers who are expected to campaign for Mr Major are demoralised, particularly those who lost their council seats.

While in last week's contest they were at least defending their own skins, or those of friends, now they will - as one put it - be canvassing on behalf of 'fat cats from Brussels'. Drawn from a shrinking membership, and increasingly harder core activists, more party workers are anti-European anyway.

At the national level, Europe is the issue over which the party is most split. One minister said: 'The sniping goes down very badly on the doorstep. Our activists are seething and feel that the rug has been pulled from under their feet.'

Another catastrophe in June, with the Liberal Democrats fighting more of their favoured southern territory, will increase the panic by yet another notch. 'The fear of a classic squeeze to Labour in the North and to the Liberal Democrats in the South cannot be ignored,' he added.

Although some loyalists argue that Mr Major could stay on however bad the damage, others insist that to drop below 10 Euro-seats would instil among MPs visions of a Canadian-style electoral wipe-out. And in those circumstances, Mr Major would go voluntarily.

Can a second disaster be averted? Last Thursday the Cabinet rallied around Mr Major, backing his Euro-manifesto unanimously. But yesterday ex- prime minister Sir Edward Heath, speaking to the European Movement, pointed up the differences.

One minister wryly commented that 'even when Ted is trying to be helpful, he's unhelpful' but another Conservative observed: 'The old divisions have been replaced by this new simple polarity: Europe - and Europe.' That, and the need to keep the right on board, is at the root of Mr Major's personal difficulties. The customary calls for the Prime Minister to save himself by shuffling his Cabinet, choosing a distinctive message and sticking to it look doomed. As one of his more senior MPs put it: 'There is always a risk with the Prime Minister that he is so obsessed with party unity that he fails to understand one thing: that the way to keep the party united is by leading it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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