Across those far blue hills a bell is tolling

After a disastrous election, the Tories need to rebuild a Scottish identity. More urgently, the inquest is under way - and it will be bloody
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There is something about an actual election, isn't there? Bad opinion polls have long depressed the Conservatives. But they are like virtual politics. They sting less.

MPs don't regard local elections as being quite real, either - Westminster has been too contemptuous of local government for too long to worry about what happens there in itself. But any elections, even these ones, hit home. The party of government is gnawing its fingernails this weekend.

When loyal ministers say that such local electoral disasters have already been "discounted", we are entitled to snort. Discounted where, and by whom? In Downing Street, perhaps, and by a minority of Cabinet ministers, just possibly. But they haven't been discounted by Conservative MPs, who see their prized constituencies going to college lecturers and trade union officials. They haven't been discounted by ex-councillors stomping furiously around Mon Repos. And they certainly haven't been discounted on the Tory right, or by the media. There, bad news for John Major remains at a pretty hefty premium.

But before intruding, with tackety boots, into the Conservatives' private grief, it is worth noting that these elections have been a defeat for the cause of Tory Unionism, as well as for individual Tory councillors. Many senior ministers long ago mentally wrote off Scotland, accepting the argument that it is a different country from England, where different rules apply; they are waiting for the English results before they really panic. John Major himself now adopts a rhetoric which, though he may intend it to defend the Union, sounds to many Scottish ears like English nationalism, and the Scottish Tories have suffered their night of humiliation partly because they are increasingly seen as a cadet branch of an essentially English party.

In that, at least, the Conservatives are like other British institutions. The BBC, for instance, which is more important in keeping these islands glued together than any political party, is wracked by bad feeling and mutual mistrust between London and BBC Scotland, and this was so even before the latest Panorama row. Arguments at Westminster about Scotland's share of public spending are mirrored inside the corporation.

Just as Tory MPs believe devolution would be wrong because it would provide a parliament for Scotland without one for the larger nation, so London television people occasionally note the lack of BBC England. One corporation insider observed recently that the only thing holding it together at all was the endless preparation for coverage of the (Scottish) Queen Mother's death.

But at least the BBC is popular. At 11 per cent, the Scottish Tories are performing ludicrously badly - there are far more natural conservatives in Scotland that one in nine. One of the ironies of our politics is that a precondition for the revival of Conservatives north of the border is that they must regain their status as a specifically Scottish party. Probably, to do well, they now need the very Home Rule that they swear they will fight to the death.

These are the longer-distance messages that crackle and hiss from this week's slaughter of pro-Government candidates in Scotland. But there is, of course, a more immediate message. For, from across those far blue hills, a bell is tolling. Ask not for whom it tolls, advised John Donne. But the Conservatives, I fear, will now be asking little else.

There follows, in short, a mighty argument about who is to blame for the defeat: the Tory rebels, or the disliked and sometimes incompetent ministers? It is an argument that John Major, as the senior ministerial target, has to win to stay in office; which is why his supporters went immediately on to the offensive to blame "disunity" for the humiliation in Scotland.

Many agents and party workers will want to believe that is true. For though the Tories have indeed lost their talent for loyalty at a national level, they haven't, yet, at local level. There, for thousands of the bluest of the blue, it is easier and more comforting to blame the ill- discipline and disloyalty of a collection of Conservative MPs than to blame the Conservative Prime Minister. From the top of the party to the bottom, there will be a hot torrent of anger directed at Teresa Gorman, Nicholas Budgen, Tony Marlow et al.

It may persuade some of them to sue for the return of the whip. But to blame these results solely on them is an absurd delusion. The proposition that Mrs Gorman's address to the people of Lowestoft, or even Sir George Gardiner's attack on the Chancellor, were central reasons for former Tory voters in Glasgow or Deeside to switch their support needs only to be stated plainly to crumble.

Ministers, not just John Major, have to face up to the embarrassing truth that they have been recently pitting their reputations and authority against the judgement of backbench Tories - and losing.

Thus, if Tory support collapses in London, which is more likely to have helped to topple it: the judgement of Virginia Bottomley in closing historic hospitals, or the "disloyalty" of Peter Brooke in opposing her? If the voters of Oxfordshire turn against the Conservatives, will the Government- directed squeeze on school budgets be more to blame, or the "disunity" displayed by local Tories who joined and sometimes led local protests? In West Country fishing communities, will it be the deal struck by William Waldegrave that causes Tory candidates to be slapped across the chops with the psephological equivalent of a wet cod, or just irritation at the "ill discipline" of those Tory MPs who expressed their anger in the Commons?

In each case, and there are more, we have seen Tory parliamentarians turning on the administration only because they feel driven to do so by the strength of constituency anger. It is not only a parliamentary phenomenon. When reporters managed to find some of the small band of Scottish Conservatives who had succeeded in being re-elected as councillors this week, some of them, too, were quick to point out that they had fought against government policies such as water privatisation and the extension of VAT.

The case of the European rebels is different in the scale and the length of their disaffection, and in some cases the fury with which they have pursued their crusade. The European civil war has sapped the spirit and unity of this administration terribly and will go down as a central reason for its weakness. But even here, though one can accuse individual backbench rebels of many things, it is hard to accuse them of flying in the face of public opinion. The trouble with populism is, in general, that it's so damned popular.

So while Mr Major may feel that the obvious lesson from these elections is that people in his party must trust him and his ministers more, rather a lot of Conservative MPs will draw a different conclusion.

Whoever is blamed in public, he will be bitterly attacked by frightened people behind closed doors. Yes, they know that these elections tell us little or nothing about the national elections 18 months hence. Yes, they know that panic and plot at Westminster are not sensible reactions to what has happened in Perth and the Scottish Borders. Just now, they are not in a sensible mood. It's going to be a wild and gusty spring.