A fight to the death with the irreconcilables

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The Independent Online
WILL he go? In the maelstrom of rumour and propaganda swirling through the party of government, John Major's survival has become the only question that matters. If he cannot get the Maastricht Bill through the Commons he will resign, and that means the Conservative government cannot last either. Those rebels who dream of Mr Major giving up the Bill, then handing over in civilised fashion to a new leader, have taken leave of their senses. This has become a fight to the death between the Cabinet and the Thatcherite irreconcilables, and there will be nothing civilised about it.

Mr Major's closest allies see a chasm opening between two mutually antagonistic political philosophies, once held together in an uneasy electoral alliance by the Tory party. Pro-European Christian Democracy (epitomised by Douglas Hurd) and bare-knuckled English nationalism (made flesh in Lord Tebbit) can peacefully coexist no longer. Euro-rebels may be members of the same party as the Tory leadership but they are in a hostile political movement.

This perception among senior ministers is important because it has produced an angry appetite for confrontation with 'the enemy' that anti-Maastricht MPs underestimate. Pro-Europeans in the Cabinet say the Prime Minister is confronted by a virulent form of xenophobic nationalism that is kith and kin to anti-immigrant Powellism and is (in the words of one minister) 'turbulent, demonic and dangerous'. They want to crush it and would rather take the risk of electoral destruction than appease it. About this, the mood is little short of Wagnerian.

A persistent campaign against Mr Major by unreconciled Thatcherites has taken its toll. The open, relaxed and self- confident style of government heralded when Mr Major took over, and revived after the election, has been replaced by a state of siege. This is hardly surprising: the barrage of innuendo and derision has become deafening. And without victory on Maastricht, Mr Major's continuation in office would be pointless and dishonourable. All the indications are that he thinks so, too.

But perhaps it is time to lighten up. The truth of the matter has not altered. The neo-Thatcherites, or English nationalists - call them what you will - are weak and have nowhere to go. They have the megaphone of vociferous press support, but propaganda is a weak substitute for political muscle. Mr Major, the most cautious of senior cabinet ministers when it comes to European union, would be replaced by a more ardent Europhile, probably Michael Heseltine or Kenneth Clarke, if he did resign. For the anti-Maastrichtians, that would be a defeat.

So would the (unimaginable) event of an anti-Maastricht candidate succeeding Mr Major, since perhaps 100 Tory Europhiles, now quiet, would then turn on that leader. But who, anyway, would that leader be? Michael Howard? Peter Lilley? The suggested return of Lady Thatcher from the Lords would signify Britain's final collapse into hilarious, but ultimately pitiable, Ruritanian melodrama. Let us, please, for the sake of our self-respect and sanity, discount it.

Either a more pro-European leader or a more anti-European leader (the two alternatives) would be forced to preside over a wider, semi-institutionalised Tory split. The arithmetic suggests that it would also mean the loss of an effective Commons majority. This, too, would be bad news for the anti-Europeans, since they are a minority in the Commons. They could get their way only by mobilising the kind of whipped and disciplined Tory party they are now trying to destroy. Escape routes might be canvassed, such as a coalition or a referendum. More likely, though, would be the parliamentary collapse of the Conservative Party, followed by an election in circumstances that would make a Labour victory almost certain.

So Mr Major's resignation would make things worse for the rebels. Various schemes have been gossiped about in Whitehall to enable Mr Major to carry on fighting even if he lost on Maastricht. One has him resigning as leader and promptly standing again in the party election, to flush out and finally defeat a standard- bearer for the Thatcherites. Another has him going to the country specifically

on the European question, forcing an open electoral split with anti-Maastricht candidates.

This may be wild stuff. But ministers, coming to terms with the pain of living with a small Commons majority, feel authority must now be established or finally relinquished. The small band of Thatcherite irreconcilables and anti-Maastricht rebels could not survive outside the Conservative Party. Unlike the Social Democrats who broke with Labour in the early Eighties, the Tory rebels would be jumping away from the mainstream rather than into it. And all their serious leaders would be in the Lords. In how many constituencies would a Thatcherite nationalist now defeat a pro-Major Conservative?

Such confrontation is not as outlandish as it may seem. The most important group of cabinet ministers agree that it would be cowardly and dishonourable to give way on Maastricht. That being so, any Tories who want to bring them down will be faced, at some stage, with the challenge of taking their case not to the party whips, but to the country. They know what would happen if they did. That, ultimately, is why Mr Major will survive.