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