Major's allies plan his survival game

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Indy Politics
John Major will refuse to surrender after a first ballot, according to close friends who are preparing a strategy to fight off a leadership challenge by a "stalking horse" candidate.

The strategy being privately discussed by his supporters would stop key Cabinet contenders from throwing their hats into the ring for the second round of the leadership election, and would allow Mr Major to fight off the challenge.

It could leave Mr Major hanging on to power, badly wounded with a damaging vote against him. But it would stop Michael Heseltine and other Cabinet contenders from entering the race as Cabinet colleagues have said they would not run against Mr Major.

In the current mood, many Tory MPs would abstain in the first ballot. That could leave Mr Major well ahead, but force him into a second ballot against a backbench challenger. Most planning has been based on the assumption that Mr Major would stand down, rather than risk humiliating defeat in the second round when the big guns enter the field.

Some senior ministerial sources said the Major survival plan would not work. "It's just talk. He would be too badly wounded to go on," said one.

But the strategy is gaining ground among a wide range of Tory MPs, who are keen to see Mr Major survive. Labour officials have also calculated that Mr Major would refuse to stand down unless he is beaten outright by the stalking horse candidate, which is highly unlikely.

Mr Major has repeatedly warned he will not "walk away" from a fight if he is challenged for the leadership. The possible candidates include Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor. Kenneth Baker, the former party chairman, has privately ruled himself out.

The plotters seeking to bring down Mr Major failed to get the required 33 names to challenge him last autumn, but they believe there would be no difficulty in getting that number now. Mr Major's determination to stand and fight - reiterated after the disastrous Tory local election results in May - could make the potential challengers back off.

Baroness Thatcher, who reluctantly gave her support to Mr Major in her series of attacks on his policies last week, regretted standing down after the first ballot. Her supporters, including Michael Portillo, said she would have won, if she had gone on.

Her experience will also have its effect on Mr Major. Mr Portillo's supporters, meanwhile, are talking up his prospects of winning a leadership contest against Mr Heseltine, if Mr Major is forced to stand down. Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, has virtually ruled himself out as a candidate over his support for keeping the option of Britain joining a European currency.