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A fishy coincidence of principle and revenge

THERE WAS a strange, fishy smell in the House of Lords yesterday. What was it? The whiff could be inhaled throughout Baroness Thatcher's speech against the Maastricht treaty. It became pungent when she confessed that as prime minister she had been too trusting of the Europeans. And when she spoke of our ancient British liberties being at threat from a European super-state, the odour was downright acrid.

All the ambiguities of the Thatcherite position on Europe were there. The centraliser arguing against the centralisation of power. The parliamentary absolutist and defender of the current voting system arguing that, on Maastricht, the decisions of the Commons and results of the electoral system were somehow invalid.

Then, at great length and in defensive tone, we had the promoter of the Single European Act arguing that Maastricht (now gutted by the markets) was a more significant surrender of sovereignty. She had burnt her fingers with the single market, but it had been necessary to do so. Most absurd of all, we had this hard-eyed haggler posing as a misused innocent in her earlier dealings with the Europeans: poor, wide-eyed Margaret, tripping trustingly through the treaties?

There is a good case to be made against the current model for European integration. There is a good case for a referendum on Maastricht. There is an excellent case for the reform of our democracy. But Lady Thatcher, ruthless centraliser, real- politician, keen doer of private little deals, is a ridiculous mouthpiece for most of that. She cannot be allowed to rewrite her own history so easily.

Perhaps it was an honest speech, delivered for the highest of motives. But there was that smell. Not the stench of hypocrisy necessarily, but a fishy, something-not-right smell. Lady Thatcher said her speech was about something that went beyond party, and in one sense she is right. But it is also deeply about the Conservative Party and its private discontents. The audience it will have affected most, whether by design or not, is the dissident Tory audience, not the wider country or the Lords.

She would have been better to admit that straight out. She accused her successor of betraying the British people. Oh, she didn't mention him by name. But she is not nave. She knew the way she would be interpreted and, one must presume, she approved.

She knows that the Conservative Party she once led is now infected with political rot, so stinking with disloyalty and slimy with self-disgust that it may be unable to recover its political life before the next election. She knows that the people who ousted her are themselves now vulnerable, even more unpopular with the voters than she was at her nadir. The people who she feels betrayed her, she now accuses of betraying the British people. In some sense, perhaps, she and the British people are spiritually one? John Major's nemesis and her vindication would be the same event.

This coincidence of high principle and personal revenge is too convenient by half. 'Maastricht' has become a flag of convenience for all those in the Tory party who want John Major out. If Maastricht was somehow magically resolved, then they would turn to other matters: public spending, or privatisation of the Post Office, or any old thing. Some of them give the impression that they no longer care whether they win elections or not, that they have got cabin fever after all those years in power. And like it or not, she is the leader of all the rebels, of the good, the bad and the ugly alike. Of course, at some level, she does like it. Leadership is a habit hard to forget.

It is rarely possible to overestimate the self-importance of politicians, so it may be that Lady Thatcher murmurs into her mirror each night the flatteries of those who want her to return as our national leader. Does she then dream of a grand anti-European movement convulsing the Tory party and the country at large, with herself at its head?

The more likely outcome of continued faction-fighting is that the Conservatives get themselves into a downward spiral which disgusts the voters so much that they lose patience with the party altogether.

That has not happened yet. All the previous health warnings about the next election still apply. Neither opinion polls nor by-elections are any reliable indicator of how we, the beetle- browed and devious voters, will behave in a general election several years hence. The Opposition will probably be still divided then, and possibly committed to big tax increases, too. The economic recovery may also be a great political watershed: economics is not everything, but it is a lot. Perhaps Mr Major will be ousted; the mutterings against him are more menacing than at any time so far. If so, a new leader would still have plenty of time to rally the party.

Probably, possibly, may, perhaps, if: these are still the most potent words in political fortune-telling.

But a party divided against itself, in the way the Conservative Party is, cannot stand. Those who say that Mr Major is the real problem are as deluded as those who say that Norman Lamont was the problem, or any other individual politician. The problem is that a sizable section of the Tory party is out of control and cannot be brought back, even by bloodletting at the highest level. Mr Major has not the authority or vision to bring the dissidents to heel, and has made a poor job of standing up to them. But no one else in the Cabinet could stop the rot, either. Lady Thatcher could have helped. But as yesterday showed, she has other things on her mind.