A party of old people heads for defeat, eating pudding

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The Independent Online
RARELY have I seen ministers in such a jolly mood as they were in at Blackpool last week. They laughed loudly, made jokes, accepted a third glass of wine and said that, yes, on this occasion they would break the rule of their middle years, and have some pudding after all. You may deduce from this that they expect to win the election. Not so. They are sure they are going to lose.

It is this which accounts for their jovial manner. Soon they will be released from the tyranny of the private office and the red box. They will miss their official cars, of course. But most of them feel that some benefactor will speedily remedy this deprivation. In a week that has been dominated by military metaphor, they are demob-happy.

The representatives are not like this. They do not know quite what to think. The triumphalism of Lady Thatcher's years has gone. The Saatchis no longer give a party. Gone also is the bitterness that marked Mr John Major's last two conferences. For the moment, the European question has been buried - or, rather, submerged. It has been tied to the bottom of the pool like a rubber dinghy. When the ropes are loosened some time after the election, it will bob to the surface.

Another change is that the Tories have aged. Most of them seem to be even older than I am. I felt quite sprightly in their company, offering to see women representatives across the road, and asking the men whether I could help them with that heavy suitcase of theirs.

But the greatest change is that they now accept Mr Major as their leader. They do not love him as they love Lady Thatcher. But they no longer dream dreams of her returning de Gaulle-like. Her 70th birthday, and Mr Major's re-election, have conspired to fortify the Prime Minister's position. He may be going to lead them to defeat. But there is no longer any question, as there was throughout 1992-95, of who is going to be doing the leading. Over half the planks in his soap box are now in place.

One of them is straight chauvinism. If Mr Tony Blair is going to play the patriotic card, they are going to out-jingo him and play the khaki version. Unfortunately, this Cabinet is hardly bristling with military experience. Its members were too young to fight in the war. Most were too young to do national service. Even Lord Mackay was only 18 in 1945. He does not list any period of service in Who's Who. Sir Patrick Mayhew was in the Dragoon Guards. And Mr Michael Heseltine, the Archie Rice of the conference season, was in the Welsh Guards.

Mr Heseltine's military career, however, did not last long. He became prospective candidate for Gower in the 1959 election. In accordance with the rules then in force, he was automatically discharged. By 1962 the Heseltine precedent had become better known. Over 600 national servicemen requested nomination papers for two impending by-elections. A special advisory committee, appointed by the Home Secretary, was set up to scrutinise the good faith of candidates seeking a discharge from the services. The committee, I believe, still exists in the interstices of Whitehall, even though the original reason for its creation has disappeared. Mr Heseltine's footnote is in constitutional rather than in military history.

I doubt whether Mr Michael Portillo, with a Spanish father, would have progressed even as far as Mr Heseltine in the Guards - or would be welcomed into the SAS today. He would certainly be ineligible to serve in MI5 or MI6. Most supposedly "sensitive" posts in our polity require the holder to be able to display two UK-born British subjects as parents. This may be right or wrong - I think probably wrong. But Mr Portillo is in the Cabinet as Secretary for Defence. He can get the rules changed if he wants to. In the meantime, a period of silence on his part would be welcome.

Mr Portillo's crazed performance would have been disgraceful had it not been so grotesque. We have been members of Nato for 46 years. Brussels has no ambitions to boss our troops about. In some factory west of Birmingham they have probably been turning out metrically measured cap badges for years. In any case, such a jibe is rich, not to say fruity, coming from a member of a government that has introduced metrication by stealth, like a thief in the night, with none of the public discussion which preceded Labour's decimalisation of 1971 (and which led Harold Wilson to insist that, because it would raise prices, the election had to be held in 1970).

Mr Major, despite his charge of "doublethink" against Labour, has as many voices as Mr Rory Bremner. We are told that he approved Mr Portillo's speech. That was because it was to be delivered to a Tory conference. Mr Major will say something else to the Commons, something else again to the European Heads of Government when they next have a get-together.

They will not really understand. Our form of dishonesty is different from theirs. Mr Major would not dream of setting up his relations in privileged accommodation, as Mr Alain Juppe, the French prime minister, has done. Indeed, foreigners wonder at the modesty of the life of our Prime Minister's brother, Mr Terry Major-Ball. But Mr Juppe and others like him nevertheless pride themselves on their intellectual consistency in a way which would be incomprehensible to Mr Major and most of his Cabinet.

Inconsistent or not, will it play in Scunthorpe? My feeling is that Mr Major and his colleagues are falling into the same error as Mr Tony Benn, Lady Castle, Mr Enoch Powell and others in the early 1970s. They really thought they were on to a winner in wanting to take us out of the Common Market, as it was then called. The 1975 referendum, however - which most of them had demanded - cemented us into the organisation even more firmly.

The cement has now begun to crack, though even Mr Portillo does not want us to hoist ourselves out, as Mr Norman Lamont does. Yet a generally disobliging attitude towards Europe may not turn out to be as attractive to the voters as it evidently is to a Tory conference. They have been there on their holidays; are younger than the Tory representatives; and may well prefer Mr Blair's more agreeable noises, however imprecise.

The rest of the planks are being nailed in place. Mr Michael Howard's punitive policies immediately annoyed the Lord Chief Justice. This is not in itself culpable. The judges' large discretionary powers in sentencing are, in my view, indefensible. But then, so also are the Home Secretary's discretionary powers over parole and release. The other plank which is in position is that Labour is "unfit to govern".

But the thickest plank of all is still in the yard. How could Mr Kenneth Clarke say anything when his Budget was only weeks away? If he is to make tax cuts, he had better make them soon. Mr Alan Howarth's defection reduces the Government's majority to five. There may be a hard winter ahead, and the Grim Reaper will be doing his work.