Tactical manoeuvres led to Tory centre-left's coup

He is a man who has inched back to the centre
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This week's remarkable coup by the centre and left of the Tory party is only now starting to become clearer. The dispossessed Thatcherites scent a crude votes-for-job deal between Michael Heseltine and John Major which undermined the leadership ballot. They are wrong. There was something of a plot, but it was both subtler and more widespread than that.

Mr Heseltine didn't tip the wink to anyone. Mr Major's people have reason to know that very well. Nor did the Prime Minister demean himself during their private discussion on Tuesday by asking Mr Heseltine to tell "his people'' to back the Prime Minister.

What happened was that key players on the centre-left of the party had had tactical conversations before the ballot about how to prevent the prime ministership falling into the hands of a right-wing anti-European.

In particular, it was clear that Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, would not contest any subsequent ballot but would swing behind Mr Heseltine, as would the bulk of the Cabinet. There was a big "stop Portillo'' army standing by and ready to roll.

Why didn't Mr Heseltine give the orders for people to abstain or vote for John Redwood in order to provoke a second ballot and eventually reconstruct the government under his own leadership? The neo-Thatcherites think it was because he believed that in a contest between himself and Michael Portillo, he would lose.

Again, not so. The mixed motives of MPs in voting for Mr Redwood make accurate calculations difficult; but the true strength of the hard-line right is probably not so different from the third of the party that refused to support Mr Major this week. Heseltine supporters believed, rightly or wrongly, that if he stood, Hezza would win.

The reason he didn't stand, according to his admirers, is that he realised that whether he won such a contest, or Mr Portillo did, the Conservative Party would be ungovernable. Neither of them would be sure of commanding a Commons majority. The Government might have fallen and the party would have been annihilated in a general election this summer.

Mr Heseltine, at heart a party man, decided the risks were too great. Major supporters were drawing a sharp distinction between his decision and Mr Portillo's preparation of a campaign headquarters. Had Mr Portillo decided it was in his own interests to crush the Redwood attack, and campaigned more full-throatedly for Major, he would be settling into a much plusher job this morning.

So what was the deal between Mr Major and Mr Heseltine? The Prime Minister had been trying to get him to take a bigger role in the Government for ages. This week he wanted to ensure Hezza's support in the event of a close result. He needed to know the terms on which the old campaigner would come out and back him after a knife-edge result.

Looking at the Cabinet, we now know those terms. For himself, Mr Heseltine wanted enough power to make him a cross-Whitehall player. But essentially, Mr Major was told that the price of centre-left support was a clear sense of direction, with no further trimming to the right. By Tuesday, Mr Major's anger about the defection of one right-winger after another had been slowly rising. Instinct and political necessity pointed in the same direction; the left's timing could not have been better.

The right will now portray him as the prisoner of Mr Clarke and Mr Heseltine, surrounded by a gang of menacing Cabinet heavies. Mr Heseltine's real job, they'll suspect, is to keep a 24-hour watch on Mr Major to see that he doesn't succumb to temptation and go wandering off to ingratiate himself with the bastards again.

There is, perhaps, a tiny sliver of truth in this. Like most people, prime ministers can be judged by their friends and by that standard, this is certainly a man who has inched back to the centre. Did he shuffle, or was he pushed? My guess is that he was helped on his way.

The Labour Party, however, has been too gleefully celebratory about the events of the past few days. It is very early days for this new Tory team, and also very late in the life of this Parliament; but Mr Major's Cabinet looks more credible and more mainstream than we could possibly have predicted a fortnight ago.