At last, Major will have to come out fighting

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THE CRISIS of leadership for the Prime Minister promises to turn next week's Conservative Party conference at Brighton into a gripping melodrama. John Major's willpower and tactical ability are being tested, perhaps to destruction. The collapse of the European exchange rate mechanism strategy has not led the Government into a gentler, more rational world, as the free-floaters predicted. Instead, eminent Tories are chasing one another with hatchets, screaming and whooping: the natural party of government is behaving with all the mutual respect and moderation of the Labour Party, circa 1981.

This behaviour, though rooted in the party's long civil war over Europe, has been intensified by a feeling that Mr Major is not quite in charge. The Tory party will always respond to a clear lead but behaves extraordinarily badly without one. Mr Major said he would not devalue. He said he would not let David Mellor go. He says he sticks by Norman Lamont. How tough is he? His party wants to know.

The testing process can be seen most clearly in the pro-Tory press, which has turned against Mr Major (mostly) and Mr Lamont (almost entirely). Rarely, if ever, can a recently victorious Tory prime minister have faced a party conference with the Conservative press so hostile, so vitriolic, so apparently implacable. Nor is it true that the press is a side-show in this struggle. The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Express and the Sun, in particular, form the mental suspension in which the Conservative Party swims. They link the leadership with the party members and the party voters. If the suspension turns murky and poisonous, that matters.

A strident anti-Maastricht mood has been sweeping through the editorial offices of most of the Tory press, ranging from carefully argued scepticism about closer integration to raging Europhobia. The lack of a clear policy line from Downing Street and heavy-handed attempts by politicians to make the editors see things their way have helped to fuel anti-Maastricht, anti-Treasury sentiment.

Devaluation was the turning point. The pain and the sacrifices of the readers of the mass-circulation papers were in vain. At the posher papers, the anti-Maastricht pundits were triumphant. One highly coloured story circulating widely at News International and among MPs had Mr Major telephoning Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of the Sun, on Black Wednesday, the day of the devaluation, to get his reaction. 'It's like this, Prime Minister,' says Mr MacKenzie. 'I've got two buckets (of unpleasant stuff) standing on my desk. And tomorrow morning, I'm going to tip them over your head.' Long and horrible pause. Prime Minister (queasily): 'Ooh, Kelvin, you are a card.'

Although Mr MacKenzie denies that the conversation took place, close associates of both men give it credence, and the story vividly symbolises the worsening relationship between Downing Street and the pro-Conservative press. The following day, the Sun editorialised about 'the smell of panic' hanging over Downing Street and called for Mr Lamont's resignation, though not Mr Major's. 'Every man, woman and child in the country will pay for the Government's incompetence,' the paper said.

Mr Major, according to other editors, telephoned several papers to emphasise the Germans' involvement in sterling's ignominious retreat from the ERM. Mr Lamont said this week that he could not be held responsible for what the papers said. But there has been heavy ministerial briefing about the wicked Bundesbank nevertheless.

The dreadnought of the Tory press, the Daily Telegraph, has also been gunning for the Government with ever-heavier broadsides. Its proprietor, Conrad Black, is hostile to much of the European union project, and week after week allows his Spectator magazine complete freedom to deride the Major-Lamont axis. Max Hastings, the Telegraph's editor, was called into the Treasury by the Chancellor. Rather than calling off the barrage, the conversation led to Mr Hastings telling Mr Lamont that he ought to resign. Again, when this story started to circulate among journalists and politicians, it caused no surprise - and that, really, is the most striking thing of all.

This week, the Telegraph savagely attacked Mr Lamont in a long leader that started: 'The antics of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his efforts to cling to office have proved one of the most distasteful spectacles of the past fortnight.' The paper is going for his head, and it will not let up through conference week.

Relations with the Mail are even worse. Its new editor, Paul Dacre, is a convinced anti-Maastrichtian whose attacks on Mr Major and Mr Lamont have led to his being shunned by Downing Street. Mr Major is still apparently talking to Sir David English, chairman of Associated Newspapers, which owns the Mail, a sounding- board for Tory politicians for 20 years. The Prime Minister is furious with Mr Dacre, but the Mail is unabashedly a player in the political game, just as it was when it attacked the Heath premiership and campaigned for Nigel Lawson's resignation as Chancellor three years ago. Who will go first: Mr Major, Mr Lamont or Mr Dacre? Even at the Express, the most loyal paper left, a platform has been routinely afforded to hard-punching opponents of ratification.

All this is dangerous. If Mr Major listens to his critics hammering at him through the Tory papers, and thus through the minds of his supporters, he is finished. Wittingly or otherwise, Mr Lamont has allowed a chink of light to appear between himself and the Prime Minister, which, from his own point of view, is foolish. If Mr Lamont is no longer with Mr Major, he should go. If he is still on board, Mr Major badly needs him.

If the Prime Minister leaves his Chancellor to the bears, the bears will only go for him next. Hilaire Belloc has a poem about a gentleman devoured by a bear. It ends with a couplet against leaderly decision that, until now, might have been written for Mr Major: 'Decisive action in the hour of need / Denotes the Hero. But does not succeed.'

Well, nothing else has succeeded. He cannot placate the press, as he must have started to realise. So he has only one option left if he is to make it through next week politically alive. On Europe, on Mr Lamont and on the ERM, he has to go for confrontation. Finally, he has to fight.