Even from that bastion of Toryism, Peterhouse, Cambridge, where Mr Cowling was a Fellow until his retirement last week, things look pretty bleak for the Conservatives as they assemble in Blackpool for their annual conference.
Mr Cowling, 67, probably did more than anybody to make Thatcherism intellectually respectable and to give confidence to right-wing thinkers in academia. He was a founder of the 'revisionist' school of historians - John Vincent, Jonathan Clark, Norman Stone and others - which attacked the English liberal tradition right back to John Stuart Mill. A former journalist, he encouraged academics of like mind to express their views robustly and publicly, and to think the unthinkable.
Yet he is notoriously diffident about his own links with the Conservative Party, describing himself as a 'symptom rather than a cause' of Thatcherism. His tutorship of and friendship with Mr Portillo, the ultra-dry Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is well documented, and he admits to other high- level contacts including Nigel Lawson, Geoffrey Howe, John Biffen, Norman Lamont and John Gummer.
He says he met, rather than knew, Margaret Thatcher. But photographers plan to stake out a party to mark his retirement in the expectation of an appearance by the former prime minister.
Finding Mr Cowling in his last week at Peterhouse was not easy. The historian's rooms were not in the elegant first court but in a glass-and-concrete staircase from which his name had already been removed. Inside, books, papers, furniture and other possessions stood in piles on the floor while a squall blew in through open balcony doors. When two college servants arrived in the middle of this chaos bearing trays of lunch, it felt like room service in the Beirut Hilton.
Mr Cowling proved younger in appearance and more genial than I imagined, but his dress sense shouted donnish eccentricity: a smart blue-and- white striped shirt and silk tie topped, curiously, by a green towelling dressing gown. (According to former students, the dressing gown was usual wear for supervisions.)
While he did not call for Mr Major's resignation, he said: 'Obviously the Conservative Party is in bad shape. The relationship between leading persons in it and public perceptions is not good.' What the party needed was someone 'with the dignity and ability to utter what the Conservative Party needs to stand for at the end of the next decade'. If Mr Major could not do this, he needed someone by his side who could.
This, it appeared, would not be Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, who Mr Cowling believes 'looks like a virtuous apprentice' and 'scores minus 350 on the dignity-rating'. He added: 'The PM will remove him if he has any sense.' Mr Clarke, the Chancellor, was a bit too much of a 'Max Miller, cheeky- chappie sort of figure'.
As a believer in the importance of individual actions and high politics in shaping history, Mr Cowling is reluctant to see the current crisis as one provoked by the forces of left and right battling for primacy. Rather, he sees it in terms of 'ins' versus 'outs'. He views Thatcherism as a collision of circumstances, personalities and a strand of traditional Tory thinking. 'It was a force for good. Historically, there was a public sentiment to respond to and she and others had a bag of tricks and a set of policies to respond.
'They were fortunate in their timing, but Keith Joseph, Nigel Lawson, Geoffrey Howe and she had something resembling a programme. If it was not at the beginning, she came to believe it at the end, and that is fair enough.'
Lady Thatcher, he thinks, 'has found it very difficult to reconstruct a political career after the deluge', but adds: 'She deserves the honour due to someone who did something for which the Conservative Party should be deeply grateful.' Nor would he attack the present Prime Minister, although his defence was less convincing. Pressed for a judgement on Mr Major (whom he has met), he said - after lengthy deliberation - that he was 'amiable'. It was rather like observing that Graham Taylor has good table manners.
Amiable or not, it is clear that Mr Major has not provided the leadership that the right expected. 'The policies,' Mr Cowling concluded, 'are perfectly all right but it is not clear to the public what the Conservative Party stands for, what it is meaning to say, and in what tone it is meaning to say it.'
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