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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent