After the voters, the vultures

The candidates are circling, waiting for their chance to seize the Tory leadership should Major lose the election. Donald Macintyre gives the low-down on the contenders and their chances of success
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Some time this year, the chances are that the Tory party will have a new leader. Officially, no one is thinking about it. Unofficially some Tories are thinking of little else. One Cabinet minister starts sending out Christmas cards to MPs he hasn't exchanged the time of day with for years. Another just happens to throw a cocktail party for parliamentary candidates in winnable seats. Slowly, discreetly, the campaigns have already begun.

One of many reasons why the outcome will be so unpredictable is that the leadership contest will have its own dynamic. In John Redwood, Michael Portillo, and Michael Howard, there are at least three ambitious candidates on the right. That was true of the Labour Party modernisers too, when John Smith died in 1994. Eventually Gordon Brown agreed, over a famous dinner at Granita in Islington, not to run. But then Brown and Blair had always agreed that only one of them would run for the leadership. No such blood brotherhood exists on the Tory right. All the right-wing candidates are ambitious men; there isn't much likelihood that they will hold a "Super- Granita" and that two of them will stand down before the leadership contest opens. And if all three of them run, each will face a strong temptation to outbid each other for the hard right vote in the first ballot. And on Europe, for example, that could mean going just that bit further in contemplating withdrawal from the EU than the candidates might have intended.

The challenge nevertheless for the right-wingers in the first ballot will be to be right wing enough to attract solid support among the Thatcherites, while not being so right wing as to frighten off the centre and left in the second and third ballots which any candidate needs to emerge as victor. Private analyses circulating in Westminster of the party's composition after the general election confirm strongly that the centre of gravity will swing sharply to the Europhobic right. But they also suggest the left and centre will still be a force in the post-general election Tory party. If the Tories were wiped out and got less than 100 seats, then the left and centre left would probably muster just over 40 seats. Around a dozen are unknowns, or undecideds and around 45 on the right or centre right - with more than half those on the hard right. If the Tories win 200 seats then the rough breakdown from left to right, is 80, 30, 90. And if the Tories win 250 seats, the breakdown would be roughly: 100, 35, 115. So the right is significantly the biggest single group in each case; but in no case do they overwhelm the party.

If Major loses, he could go straight away. Equally, he could decide to stay, perhaps until the party conference in October. Under the rules, and because of the summer recess, a May general election would make a challenge to him impossible before November. And the greater the chance the party would have to see how the candidates are performing as Opposition spokesmen, the more those performances will matter to the outcome. In 1980 Labour preferred a unifying Michael Foot to Denis Healey, its likeliest general election victor. And the party still fell apart. The Tories could yet split. But nothing unites a party like its capacity to win.

Michael Heseltine 5-1

Never, but never, rule out the Big H. True, in 1995 there was a strong suspicion that Heseltine never became a contender because there were fewer convinced supporters than in 1990, when he had failed, finally, to beat either Margaret Thatcher or John Major. True the there is a touch of the Archie Rice about the old maestro, these days. And he alienated possible right wing support at a meeting with the '92 group this week by giving clear pre-election "belt up" warning to Euro-sceptics (while pointing out in passing that he had supported EMU opt out before john Major even became PM). But he has never given up yet. One theory is he could come in on a second ballot. Say for example Ken Clarke did well enough in the first ballot to show the left were still a force; but not well enough to beat the right. And say Blair had won by only a narrow majority, needing a second general election. It could postpone the big showdown. And young cardinals vote for old popes.

Michael Portillo 5-1

In political de-tox after a series of rash errors - allowing his mate David Hart to set up a safe house to run a campaign that never was in July 1995 and making a crass speech to the 1995 conference invoking the SAS for Tory purposes. Is steadily rehabilitating himself as orthodox and enthusiastic Defence Secretary - and reconnecting with Tory old right - while staying loyal to leadership, and conspicuously avoiding public boat-rocking over Europe. Advantages: charm, looks, intelligence. Disadvantages: lingering doubts over (1) judgement and (2) whether, as hard-line Euro- sceptic (has obliquely questioned whether even single market needs EC enforcement) he could reach out to centrists in the party.

Michael Howard 6-1

Strong potential campaign already exists in shadow form including old rightists Sir Archie Hamilton and Sir Nicholas Bonsor, along with key Maastricht rebel Sir Michael Spicer, plus ex-Central Office staffer and key 1997 Commons entrant Tim Collins. Impressive track record as ring leader of Euro-sceptic right within Cabinet, right back to 1990. Has boldly led latest attempts to persuade John Major to abandon "wait and see" policy on EMU. Made original Cabinet move before Christmas which led to yesterday's new Euro-sceptic tone on EMU. Advantages: as Home Secretary, most senior figure on the right, attractive and intelligent wife (ex-model Sandra Paul). Disadvantages: off- putting TV image and the danger of peaking too early - it doesn't help that he's already being written up as right- wing favourite. Semi-official position on Europe: hopes to stay in but would keep possible withdrawal threat as shot in negotiating locker.

Stephen Dorrell 6-1

The Health Secretary's roots are firmly on the left of the party. But he has since spectacularly trimmed by going Euro-sceptic (now one of the Cabinet minority seeking change in the "wait and see" policy) and making wild claims that Margaret Thatcher was really a one-nation Conservative. Also pleasing right wing by planning further privatisation of social services. Important friends include Danny Finkelstein, the influential research director at CCO, credited with "drying him out on Europe". Advantages: highly personable, good ministerial track record (except at Heritage where he was notoriously unhappy) and with real appeal for younger centrists in the party. Disadvantages: faces danger that his rightward shuffle will anger left without convincing right.

Ken Clarke 7-1

Conventional wisdom is that he couldn't win the leadership of a now basically Euro-sceptic party. Which is peculiar given that (1) he was thought of as recently as 1993/4 as the man within a heartbeat of taking over from John Major, (2) even his political enemies regard him as having been a highly successful Chancellor and obvious Prime Ministerial material, and (3) he is undoubtedly the politician Tony Blair would most fear as leader of the Opposition. But he will surely run, and the trimming of others on the left may give him enough space to do better than some MPs expect. If the party suffered meltdown, it might even come to its senses, forget ideology and choose him.

John Redwood 8-1

Believes he has earned the right to be the Thatcherites' standard-bearer. Michael Portillo had the chance to stand in 1995 when John Major put his leadership up for grabs. He chose not to, even though Redwood would have backed him. Redwood therefore showed the courage to resign from the Cabinet that Portillo failed to do. Disadvantage: widespread doubts about whether he could hold the party together, or win a general election.

William Hague 8-1

The Welsh Secretary is the right's "fourth man": the party's one-time child prodigy is still ridiculously young at 36. But has definitely not ruled himself out of running this year, despite reports to the contrary (would back either Howard or Portillo if he didn't run.) After an election in which Blair wins well and could be in for two terms or more, it could suddenly make sense to "skip a generation". Will only run, however, if he thinks he has a decent chance of winning. According to one ex-minister, "the one certainty is that sooner or later, William Hague will be leader of the Tory party". Disadvantage: relative inexperience. Advantages: impeccably Euro-sceptic - part of the anti-"wait and see" minority in the Cabinet, while believing Britain should be "in Europe but not run by Europe". Of the four right wingers he has the best chance of appealing to the left and centre. At least one Cabinet minister on the left predicts he will be leader by the end of the year.

Malcolm Rifkind 9-1

Brilliant high flier. Some political ambiguities: although thought to be on the centre left in the 1970s (pro devolution for example), voted for Thatcher rather than Willie Whitelaw in the second ballot in 1975 and has been anti-EMU since well before he became Foreign Secretary. Infuriated Ken Clarke by including anti-EMU passage in Zurich speech last year.Was stout co-defender with Clarke of wait and see policy - but also an enthusiastic architect of yesterday's shift towards more sceptical language on EMU.

Ian Lang: 10-1

The essentially Majorite alternative. Advantage: shrewd and amusing; doesn't attract hostility on either left or right. Disadvantage: too like Major and could lose Scottish seat.

Gillian Shephard 12-1

Like Lang, could have strong centrist appeal despite her Euro-sceptic leanings and made obvious leadership bid last year by publicly espousing corporal punishment. Not much sign of a bandwagon at present. But few people before the two 1974 general elections thought another woman education secretary, Margaret Thatcher, would be a candidate, much less a winner.

Michael Forsyth 15-1

Clever, tough, and deep-dyed Euro-sceptic judged to have been a signal success on Scotland. Has allies in parliamentary party but fighting to keep super-marginal Stirling seat.

Chris Patten 50-1

The prince over the water. Would be a charismatic standard-bearer for the left, and has usefully shifted towards right on Europe and on state spending in his time in Hong Kong. But close friends insist he won't be a runner even if Major stays on until after he stops being Governor at end of June. Plans to spend six months in France writing a book on Asia; wife Lavender against him going back into British politicis (though would back him if he did). Will know neither 1992 or 1997 intakes. Is fastidiously against the idea of being parachuted into by-election seat while incumbent is moved to Lords - necessary if he were to run. And could be offered a job by Blair [for example as Tory European Commissioner if Sir Leon Brittan stands down]. Highly unlikely to be a contender - but the unexpected sometimes happens.