The Conservative Party in Blackpool: Facade of unity masks politics of weakness

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IF YOU made a Faustian bargain, you'd at least expect the forces of darkness to deliver. The idea had been getting around at Blackpool that John Major had done a crude political deal with Margaret Thatcher. He would move briskly to the right, proudly declaring himself a Thatcherite - no more distressing stuff about golden ages that never were. In return, she would stop destroying his leadership.

Well, hah] The front page of yesterday's Daily Mirror, with what seem to be extracts from Baroness Thatcher's memoirs, damning Mr Major as a second- rate, equivocal ditherer, ought to ram home the dangers of trying to deal with her. For reasons I will explain, I don't think there was quite such a blatant, wide- ranging bargain.

There certainly isn't this morning. Party managers had hoped to patch things up for conference week. Even that modest stratagem, being loyally delivered here by ministers and welcomed up by grassroots Tories, is now failing. Lady Thatcher herself may not have wished her book's revelations to emerge as they have, with a clear anti-Tory spin on them, in the first few hours of the 'unity conference'. She too was the victim of an old-fashioned journalistic scoop: at least, it appears so. But she could have limited the damage; she could not bring herself to. Her statement 'backing' Mr Major was as warmly supportive as a bucket of ice-cold water.

Terse and belated, it had the feel of something extracted from her with a pair of pliers. She did not deny the quotations. Presumably, she could not. And let's not forget that the furore will sell books - this is the place where commerce and politics intersect.

If she could not be safely negotiated with, nor could anyone else be. There is no other acknowledged leader of the right-wing dissidents with whom Mr Major can parley. There are hurt individuals, loose alliances, a variety of motives and bottom lines. There is no one to deal with.

Instead, something rather subtler and more interesting has been happening. Mr Major has decided he cannot fight this winter on two political fronts. He now knows that taxes are going to have to rise, probably including a widening of the VAT base. Already, the rebellion over VAT on fuel is serious.

The Government has to win those votes in the Commons in order to retain any direction, any real authority. Senior ministers are genuinely worried that they will lose them: there have been mutterings about more votes of confidence.

That being so, everything is being subordinated to the struggle to rebuild a majority in the Commons. Anything that can be used to patch up differences with reasonable right-wingers will be. The Prime Minister has been told by colleagues that, since he can dress up his pragmatic Europeanism in the semi-nationalist language of Gaullism, he must. Where continuity can be stressed with the Thatcher governments, it is being. But this appeasement can only be effective with some on the right. Alongside it, there is a rougher strategy, to separate 'respectable' That cherites from a small number of publicity-hungry irreconcilables - and then, having isolated them, to hammer them, attacking their credibility, even their sanity. In the party, if the mood on the conference floor was anything to go by, there is a hunger for this counter-attack.

Will it work? It might. The appeasement is largely cosmetic, a matter of words, not policies. There is no Commons majority, either, for deep cuts in the welfare state. The room for a new nationalism at the top table of European politics is more limited than Mr Major's sub-Thatcherite rhetoric suggests.

But these are still the politics of weakness, ducking and weaving, struggling for survival through the next vote, the next confrontation. They don't add up to a strategy for political success, the sense of clear direction that might carry the Tory party through. That, under our system, can only come from one man.

Until it does, the vivid simplicities of Lady Thatcher will continue to distort Tory politics, subverting this government day after dingy day.