After the euphoria, the Norma option

For John Major to call a leadership election was a grand, almost poetic, gesture. But it doesn't solve the problem; The mistake is to see the Prime Minister as clinging on to power

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Some people achieve prolonged euphoria by the simple expedient of boring holes in their skulls and letting out the cerebrospinal fluid. Others resort to solvent-sniffing, a shot in the arm, a line of coke in the loo. But these physical sources of the high, the rush, have no marked effect on one's neighbours. You are as high as a kite, I observe. I happen not to be. That's that.

For a really infectious euphoria, there's nothing like a dramatic gesture, a simple act of daring, a demarche, to excite the sympathy. Philip Larkin wrote a poem about the psychology of these gestures, which begins:

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,

As epitaph:

He chucked up everything

And just cleared off,

And always the voice will sound

Certain you approve

This audacious, purifying,

Elemental move.

And Larkin agrees. He, too, finds that to hear it said:

He walked out on the whole crowd

Leaves me flushed and stirred,

Like Then she undid her dress

Or Take that you bastard;

Surely I can, if he did?

But of course Larkin ends up unable, taking the longer view, to approve these enviable gestures, just as Auden, in a poem, says that "To throw away the key and walk away" is the kind of action that "makes us well/Without confession of the ill."

Everyone has been describing a kind of euphoria which infected the Major camp as the Prime Minister decided to resign as leader of his party, and they have emphasised the pleasure of Norma at the decision. And this pleasure, this euphoria, spread from the Major family, through his immediate camp, to the party as a whole, to his enemies, his critics, his friends. He did it! He just went and jolly well did it! "Take that, you bastards," he said - or in fact, following verbatim the advice of a leader in last week's Sunday Times - "put up or shut up."

It was a grand gesture, viewed as a gesture. Not as grand as a quick sprint down to Buckingham Palace would have been, with the Cabinet in hot pursuit - not as grand as a resignation as prime minister, dropping the whole Government, in the way one hurries to drop an idea that has proved to be mistaken. This gesture "makes us well", as Auden said, "Without confession of the ill." And so this euphoria had to be short-lived. It will be followed, undoubtedly, by other sensations, other euphorias indeed. But it does not, of itself, solve the problem.

Typical of the euphoria period was the behaviour of Sir Marcus Fox, announcing that the executive of the 1922 Committee was unanimously behind the Prime Minister without, apparently, securing the assent of one David Evans MP, who naturally then decided that the fact of his name being taken in vain was enough to permit him to turn against Major.

Sir Marcus is a man who would clearly prefer the whole of political life to take place under euphoric conditions, with great gestures of unanimity and demonstrations of loyalty to the Beloved Leader.

Typical, too, was John Redwood's initial statement of support for the PM, which served the same purpose as a 24-hour insurance cover slip, now long since out of date. Mr Redwood was not consulted or informed sufficiently in advance. Mr Redwood took to his tent,to sulk like Achilles. Mr Redwood thus became a Trojan stalking-horse, and in next to no time Mr Redwood became the thing itself - this, as Edward Leigh said yesterday, was his moment of destiny. Promoted from being preferable to Norman Lamont, as - let's be plain - cannon-fodder, he suddenly became Mr Preferable-to- Portillo.

How far we are, already, from Larkin's "audacious, purifying, elemental move," this single gesture that will set everything straight. How quickly the argument has been muddied. Edward Leigh tries to make out that the election will not be free, since members of the Cabinet were not free to stand against Mr Major. Stephen Dorrell, in reply, tries to make out that the Cabinet was entirely free to stand, but each member chose, of his own free will, to support the PM instead. Yet a part of the euphoria came from precisely the sense that, by standing for re-election now, Mr Major had indeed forced every member of the Cabinet who wanted to remain in a job to stay super-loyal at least until he, Major, resigned before the second ballot. The Cabinet, after all, is still in office, and must function like a cabinet, to all outward appearances.

Mr Redwood goes missing. The Cabinet Office, we hope, could find him, but Cowley Street, Mr Major's HQ, cannot. But Mr Leigh can find him. He

Half froth, half venom, spits himself

abroad.

Mr Leigh "refuses to speculate in public" about what he, Leigh, has said to Mr Redwood. But then he goes on and tells us anyway, all the stuff about the moment of destiny.

If the choice was between being a man of destiny and - the more obvious outcome - road-kill, it was worth taking a good weekend to ponder. But as the euphoria recedes and the form of the first ballot encounter comes close to being unveiled, it seems clear to me that the press has already affected the outcome of any ballot by the repeated insistence that, whatever Tory members say about their voting intentions, they must be presumed to be lying.

MPs are as impressionable as anyone else, and if everybody is publicly agreed that they are all lying, then the temptation to lie must surely increase. And if an abstention, or a vote for the stalking-horse/man of destiny, is a more interesting option than a vote for the status quo, well ... you only have to look at these MPs to see that they are the kind who would always pick the scab, even though they know there is going to be blood.

Fifty in opposition on the first ballot is taken as the reasonable, survivable figure; one hundred as being too embarrassing perhaps to survive. But who knows? Perhaps this euphoria is addictive. Perhaps chucking up everything and just clearing off, walking out on the whole crowd, perhaps the temptation to throw away the key and walk away might remain a euphoric option - as Larkin puts it:

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,

Crouch in the fo'c'sle

Stubbly with goodness ...

Perhaps this is the Norma option - give the party one last chance, set up the circumstances in which you would be justified in chucking in your hand. In other words, the mistake is to see John Major as clinging on to power. Rather, he and his wife might be looking for an excuse to swagger the nut-strewn roads.

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