When John Major falls off his soap-box, who will clamber on?

Paul Routledge on the real question that concerns the Tories
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As They gather in blustery Bournemouth, the Tory faithful are understandably obsessed about the election. No, no, not the general election. The election for the leadership of the Conservative Party that, on present trends, will immediately follow the other one.

The received wisdom on the back-benches is that if John Major falls off his soap-box and loses, he will be gone within a week. "Why should he hang around and take all the flak?" asked one Major loyalist. (The actual words used were rather more earthy.) "He'll go off to make some money from his memoirs."

The next six days, therefore, will be critical for the would-be premiers jostling for pole position. The conference agenda, already published, promises a succession of ministers strutting their stuff and showing how much more tough they are, or caring, or whatever they have to be to look more competent than their Labour shadows. It will not be easy. How does Michael Howard outflank Jack Straw on the Right? Can Kenneth Clarke be more of an Iron Chancellor than Gordon Brown says he will be?

The answer is that they must, because the real, unpublished agenda at Bournemouth is: who will succeed John Major? Officially, MPs and constituency "representatives" (they hate to be called delegates) are sworn to a mafia- style omerta. In private, they talk of little else.

A discreet sample of back-bench opinion has come up with some very interesting conclusions. First, and by almost universal consent, watch out for William Hague, the Welsh Secretary and youngest member of the Cabinet, who will appear tomorrow morning to talk about keeping the Kingdom United. He is regarded as having done a much better job in the principality than his predecessor, John Redwood. "Hague is the guy who must set out his stall," said an old warhorse in the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs. "At present, he is everybody's favourite. His politics seem to trundle down the middle, yet he is acceptable to the right, too."

Younger MPs concur, but speak of him as a leader-after-next, rather than a successor. None rate Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine's chances any more ("the lion is getting mangy" is a typical view) and few are willing to punt on Kenneth Clarke. A middle-ranking figure on the right conceded: "Ken is what we need in terms of style: a thug, basically, with bluster and barnstorming skills. But we can't go in the political direction he would take us." The emphasis is not on policies. The talk is of who, not what. Defence Secretary Michael Portillo will seek to restore his image, dented severely by his jingoistic performance last year. "I hope's he's learned something," mutters a confirmed Europhobe. "But actually I think he's sunk. Partly because of his performance at Blackpool last year, and partly because he wasn't prepared to stand up and be counted [in the leadership election against John Major] - when Redwood was."

Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade, is singled out as a good "dark horse" bet in the leadership stakes, should he retain his marginal Galloway seat. He is one of the few Cabinet ministers who can make ordinary people laugh.

Like Portillo, the Home Secretary Michael Howard has been stumping the constituencies for months, winning standing ovations from audiences sometimes amounting to hundreds. But they do not have votes, and though the parliamentary party - which has - will be more right-wing after the election, his ambitions do not score where it matters. "Despite Herculean efforts, he has not been seen to deliver," is the verdict of one MP.

Peter Lilley wins marks for his handling of the DSS, but "doesn't catch the imagination". Furthermore, though they plan a robust defence of their record, the rival claims of Stephen Dorrell at Health and Malcolm Rifkind at the Foreign Office - "wets pretending to have dried out" - are not taken seriously. Much the same is said of Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary.

The Vulcan himself, John Redwood, will not get to the conference rostrum, of course, because he did have the nerve to challenge Major last summer. He plans a frantic fringe, talking on Tuesday about Winning the Election, the day after at a News International-sponsored event on Globalisation, and speaking to a Yorkshire Conservative Political Centre breakfast on Thursday on a Europe of Nations.

In between times, he has a full diary of meals with influential media folk, when he is not kinnocking from one television studio to another. He unveils his manifesto today in Conservative Way Forward, the hard-right journal with a busty blonde on the cover (excuse? she is sitting on a seaside rock alongside "clear blue water"), arguing: "If we had another great tax cutting Budget we will go up in the polls."

The Great Clarke Issue is the other item on the unpublished agenda. The Chancellor has infuriated Eurosceptics with his mildly-encouraging noises about a single European currency and the possibility that a Tory government might join the first wave of participating countries in 1999. Hardliners want John Major to "cut through his ministers' private agendas" and pledge in his conference speech on Friday that no government he leads will scrap the pound and sign up for the euro.

Mr Major's spin-doctors insist that "apart from a bit of intellectual positioning on the fringe", the leadership contenders are not going to display themselves in Bournemouth. Fat chance. This is their last opportunity to step down the catwalk before the poll that counts.

Since it is virtually political suicide to do so, Tory MPs will not go public on their hunches. The exception is Jerry "Gabby" Hayes, talkative as his Hollywood B-movie mentor, who not only thinks that the Government can win the election, but also believes the hard-hats will keep quiet. He argues: "Not even in the Disneyland of right-wing Conservatism do they think it wise to rock the boat at this conference."