Clearly, the Tories do not want to win the next election

Political Commentary
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"One is sometimes tempted to conclude," a leading article in the old Manchester Guardian once lamented, "that the Greeks do not want a stable government." That was in the 1930s. Today, likewise, one is tempted to conclude that the Tories do not want to win the election. Or (what amounts to the same thing) they have decided there is no longer any point in trying. The voters have made up their minds, in favour of Mr Tony Blair and New Labour. There is nothing anyone can do about it.

It is sometimes asserted that governing parties rarely feel this way, particularly if they are Conservative: that it is not, as Lord Kilmuir once misleadingly remarked, loyalty that is the Tories' secret weapon - it has become even more misleading since he first said it in 1962 - but, rather, self-confidence, an inbuilt sense of both the inevitability and the desirability of power. And yet in 1963-64 the Conservatives fully expected to lose to the clever Harold Wilson. It was a surprise to everyone when Sir Alec Douglas-Home ran him so close in an election which RA Butler would almost certainly have won if his party (or, rather, Harold Macmillan) had had the sense to choose him.

In February 1974 Sir Edward Heath and his colleagues expected to win, but Labour expected to lose with even more confidence. It came as a shock to Wilson to find himself back in No. 10 so unexpectedly. Before May 1979 Lord Callaghan (as he told Lord Donoughue at the time) thought there had been a shift in opinion towards the Conservatives. In April 1992 the Conservatives were more or less reconciled to relinquishing power. But Mr John Major thought he could win, and did.

That is partly why he thinks he can win next year. He has done it before and he can do it again; or so he believes. Mr Michael Heseltine and Mr Kenneth Clarke agree. But they are in a minority among ministers. They are certainly in a minority among Conservative members generally.

How else to explain the resignation by Mr David Heathcoat-Amory from the post of Paymaster-General? This ancient office, like those of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Lord Privy Seal, is one the Prime Minister can fill much as he likes, for his own purposes, to balance things out politically. Mr Heathcoat-Amory, however, did a proper job with the petty cash, as befitted a former accountant. Compared to him, his uncle Derick (known as "Derry" in Conservative circles), who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1958-60, was a colourful character.

Despite - perhaps because of - his staid appearance and uncontentious manner, Mr Heathcoat-Amory could reasonably have expected promotion to the Cabinet at some time, as Chief Secretary, Minister of Agriculture or something of that nature. But he is genuinely unambitious and possesses, in addition, a much-admired collection of fine old English banknotes, besides houses all over the place and an estate in Scotland. Nevertheless his resignation remains puzzling, in two respects.

For one thing, there was no need for Mr Heathcoat-Amory to go in the way he did. He could have adhered to the original plan and departed in Mr Major's reshuffle, which was reminiscent of the Times headline writer's earthquake in Chile: "Small Reshuffle in Whitehall. Not Many Hurt." There was not the slightest reason why the leak about Mr Heathcoat-Amory's intentions should have given him the occasion to mount a big production, with lights, cameras, newspaper interviews and dancing girls.

And, for another thing, he had been prepared to put up with quite a lot already, in his most recent job, in the Foreign Office and, most of all, in the Whips Office, pushing through the Maastricht Bill. Since those days the position of those Conservatives who are opposed to our joining a single currency has not deteriorated. It has, if anything, improved. The Government has, after all, changed its position and conceded a referendum - if, that is, you regard the referendum as a true concession.

For it was evident to me from the beginning that, in making the demand, the Europhobes were digging a pit to fall into. The referendum would take place only if the Government had arrived at an anterior decision to join the single currency. Having duly fallen into the hole, they are now trying to extricate themselves by demanding a promise from Mr Major that he will not join the single currency during the lifetime of the next Parliament. This is, in reality, a promise not to join it at all. Some of them are demanding another referendum of a different kind. Sir James Goldsmith even wants a referendum on "Britain's place in Europe", though how one can have a referendum of any description on such a vague question the old loony has yet to explain satisfactorily.

And how to explain the constant blackguarding of Mr Clarke, except on the assumption that the Conservatives do not really want to win? Only last week the Spectator was regretting that it was Mr Heathcoat-Amory rather than Mr Clarke who had resigned. The Daily Telegraph is never pleased with him. The Times is not his warmest admirer. A few months ago Mr Andrew Neil was demanding in the Daily Mail that Mr Major should dismiss him, as Lady Thatcher (or so he claimed) had dismissed Lord Lawson, though here Mr Neil had his political history slightly wrong, for Lord Lawson, as we all know, resigned from Lady Thatcher's government. As for the Mail's editor, Mr Paul Dacre, I am reliably informed by my friends on the paper that Mr Clarke ranks high among his obsessions, along with the BBC, Mr Michael Grade and Miss Polly Toynbee, being, if anything, even more sinister than any of them.

Conservative newspapers can and do pursue all kinds of vendettas, though the practice seldom turns out to their advantage. But it is in their nature to behave in this way; just as it is in the nature of a wasp to sting or of a fly to buzz. Conservative MPs have a different nature, and different interests and preoccupations; or they ought to have. Between now and the election, Mr Clarke is the single most important politician on either side. If he can get his November Budget right, there is still the possibility - it is no more - that the Conservatives may win.

Some backbenchers apprehend this dimly. They are demanding tax cuts. Yet you do not have to be a professor of psychology to understand that, if you want something from someone, it is as well to start off by treating that person pleasantly or, at least, with a modicum of civility. The Conservatives are doing neither with Mr Clarke, who is (as Mr Blair for one recognises) their biggest electoral asset, not only because as Chancellor he is in a position to dish out some sweets but also because as a person he is the sole member of the Cabinet who is recognisable as a fully paid-up member of the human race. One can only conclude that the Conservatives do not want to win, whether with Mr Clarke or without him.