Major rallies support - for a time: Record ovation cannot hide party divisions

JOHN MAJOR raised an easy laugh from the Tory faithful last Friday with a jibe that the party had had two conferences for the price of one in Blackpool: the one they were attending and the one they read about in the newspapers. But as Tory representatives streamed away from the gothic Winter Gardens an uncomfortable question emerged: which was the real one?

True, the stage-managers had triumphed over the prophets of doom - not least by defusing an unexpected crisis triggered by the leaked publication of Lady Thatcher's memoirs. As one Tory put it, the reception after a tough speech from Mr Major was vintage party conference, 'half last night of the Proms, half Nuremberg rally'.

But not even his longest standing ovation since entering Downing Street could disguise the reality. On the fringe his Cabinet 'bastards' underlined the conference's marked shift to the right, while Douglas Hurd, Foreign Secretary, called for a halt to 'permanent revolution' in policy towards public services. The test, one Cabinet minister remarked, was not in Blackpool but back at Westminster when MPs gather next week.

At times the Conservative Party's 110th annual conference looked as if it was turning into one large book launch. Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, had tried hard to limit the damage Lady Thatcher could do to the leadership, holding private talks with her before the conference at which she agreed to resume fund-raising for the party.

He hosted a dinner for her at the Imperial Hotel, greeting her at the door and guiding her through an adoring mob in the lobby. It was not a performance that convinced everyone: 'Norman looked as if he was shepherding a particularly unpleasant granny,' said one minister. But by the time Lady Thatcher had completed a gruelling six-hour journey from London the Daily Mirror had already published the most scathing criticism from the memoirs. Mr Major was a political lightweight who 'intellectually drifted with the tide'.

She also denied anointing him. 'I had not, contrary to much speculaton, reached a firm decision that John was my preferred successor,' she said.

Those who spoke to the ex-premier said she could not disguise her anger at the revelations. At first, ministers argued that the constituency representatives were not interested in the disclosures, but brisk sales of the paper suggested otherwise.

The Mirror's scoop enraged Andrew Neil, editor of the Sunday Times, which begins serialisation of the memoirs today at a reported cost of pounds 750,000. Queuing to get through security into the Imperial Hotel last week he confided to an ITN executive his belief that the Mirror had offered bribes of up to pounds 50,000 to get its hands on the book. Senior Mirror journalists denied that anyone had been bribed.

But, paradoxically, the Thatcher revelations turned the conference in Mr Major's favour. One minister said: 'The combination of it being in the Mirror - a Labour paper - and it happening on the first two days was very helpful. People had to rally round.'

Lady Thatcher's memoirs proved a shortlived distraction from the drive for unity. Ministers vied with each other in a rising crescendo of loyalty culminating in the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke's declaration that 'any enemy of John Major is an enemy of mine'. A sceptical minister said: 'The man who gives a declaration of undying loyalty is usually the one who doesn't expect to do the dying.'

Ministers are positioning for a possible Cabinet reshuffle - or leadership struggle - in a year's time. A contest is unlikely this autumn. The rules require 34 backbench Tory MPs to write to Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the 1922 Committee, requesting a ballot. Not one has done so yet.

But the heart attack sufffered three months ago by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, continues to prompt speculation of a Cabinet reshuffle. His failure to deliver a speech left ministers discussing the possibility of moving Sir Norman to the Department of Trade and Industry. That would make David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, favourite to succeed at Smith Square although he is known to be unenthusiastic about the post. Nicholas Soames, the junior agriculture minister, and Lord Archer, are also mentioned.

Mr Major's victory at Blackpool may look more impressive than that of John Smith, the Labour leader, in Brighton the previous week, but the prime minister still faces a trial of strength wih rebel backbenchers over rail privatisation, public spending cuts and likely extensions of VAT in the November 30 budget. A Cabinet member privately acknowledged last week that ministers still do not know whether their backbenchers will allow them to govern.

And just over the horizon looms the campaign for elections to the European Parliament with their potential to revive the bitter internal split over Maastricht. A rout of Tory candidates in these and May's local elections could destroy Mr Major's leadership. After all, the 1990 party conference gave Margaret Thatcher the longest-standing ovation in modern political history two months before she was ousted.

One sceptical Tory pointed to Mr Major's reference in his speech to finding 'memoirs to the left of me and memoirs to the right of me'. That, of course was an allusion to the biggest catastrophe of British military history: the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Leading article, page 24

Alan Watkins, page 24

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Test Analyst

£20000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: An experienced Tes...

Mechanical Design Engineer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: MECHANICAL D...

SQL DBA (2005/2008/2012, projects, storage requirements)

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

Copywriter - Corporate clients - Wimbledon

£21000 - £23000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Copywriter - London As a Copywrite...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried