Conservatives, be grateful for these column inches

Alan Watkins on politics
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The Independent Online
The Conservatives have still not quite got it into their heads that for at least four years and possibly longer they will not be very important. Owing to the size of Labour's majority, the biggest that any progressive party has every obtained, they are less important than the opposition after 1945 or 1966. Why, even the Liberal Democrats are more than a quarter of their strength (0.28, if you want to be more precise).

All governments need to be curbed. The task of restraining this one will fall on Her Majesty's judges - whose power will inevitably be increased with the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into our domestic law. It will fall also on the House of Lords and on what used to be called the gentlemen of the press. Most of all will it fall on what Harold Macmillan once referred to as "events, dear boy, events": a truth which has been illustrated in relation to a single European currency over the past few days both by the French electorate and by the row between the German Chancellor and the German central bank.

In the circumstances it is surprising - it is certainly flattering to Tory vanity - that the newspapers are paying as much attention as they are to the question of who is to be the next Conservative leader. But so it is. "Don't loaf around the office like a wet dream, laddie," the old news editor will say. "Get cracking and give me a good strong story on the next Tory leader." And so they do, day after day.

First of all we are told there is to be a new set-up involving a wider electorate, as Labour had in the corrupt system of 1981-93 or in the somewhat less corrupt one which was established by John Smith in 1993 and produced Tony Blair in 1994. Dr Brian Mawhinney supports it; Mr William Hague first opposes and then supports it; while Mr Kenneth Clarke promises to introduce it once he has safely been elected leader under the old system.

In the meantime Sir Archie Hamilton - a Bertie Wooster without a supporting Jeeves - is elected Chairman of the 1922 Committee. This body, by the way, has nothing to do with the Carlton Club meeting which toppled David Lloyd George and put Bonar Law in his place. It was set up for the guidance of new Conservative members who entered the House after the subsequent general election of that year. Sir Archie is opposed to any extension of the franchise.

Quite apart from his personal views, however, any widening would have been impossible to carry out on account of the pressure of time. It might have been possible if Mr John Major had decided to carry on for a short period. He announced his retirement at once, with the results from the last constituencies scarcely in. Some take the view that 'twere well it were done quickly; others, that Mr Major behaved with shocking selfishness and irresponsibility, leaving his party squabbling without a captain behind the pavilion while he watched the cricket in comfort from the balcony.

What does not hold water is the comparison that has been made between Mr Major's behaviour in 1997 and Lord Callaghan's in 1979. Indeed, the former Labour prime minister, against his inclinations, behaved in entirely the opposite way. He wanted to resign the leadership of his party virtually as soon as he had lost the election, in May 1979. But he was prevailed on to continue by his former cabinet colleagues, notably by his deputy, Mr Michael Foot. No doubt Mr Foot thought he was acting in the best interests of the Movement. Nevertheless, if the election had been held in June 1979 rather than in November 1980 it is likely that Lord Healey rather than Mr Foot would have been chosen to succeed Lord Callaghan.

My own guess is that Mr Major's hurried departure was not intended to benefit anyone in particular. He was merely fed up and wanted to spend more time at the Oval. The story is that his original preference was for Mr Hague but that, Mr Hague having been rude about him, he has now shifted to Mr Clarke, which would be natural enough. The present position is that Mr Clarke is the parliamentary party's favourite, while Mr Hague is the choice of the party in the country.

I was present when as a youth of 16, sounding like an older version of Harold Wilson, he made his maiden speech to the 1977 conference. Lord St John of Fawsley remarked to me immediately afterwards: "Where do they pick them up? Euston Station?" This was at a time when a Mr Roger Gleave, the self-styled Bishop of Medway, was exposed on television and in the press for hanging about the terminus in question and luring gullible lads to dreadful fates.

No such fate for Mr Hague! He has prospered greatly. My feeling is that, in the first ballot a week on Tuesday, the lads will finish in this order: Mr Clarke, Mr Hague, Mr Peter Lilley, Mr Michael Howard, Mr John Redwood and Mr Stephen Dorrell. If Mr Clarke obtains over 50 per cent of the total electorate, 164, together with a majority of 15 per cent of that electorate over his nearest challenger, then he has won.

These are not criteria that can be lumped together to make a single one. They are separate. Mr Clarke, or whoever turns out to be top of the poll, does not have to win 83 votes plus 25 (the 15 per cent), or 108. It will be enough to win on the first ballot if he obtains 83 or more votes and a majority of 25 or more over his nearest rival. Lady Thatcher failed to win on the first ballot in 1990 and then withdrew. Though she won an absolute majority, she had failed to reach the required 15 per cent surcharge by four votes. The limiting position is accordingly 83 for Mr Clarke and 58 or fewer for Mr Hague, Mr Lilley or whichever candidate turns out to be second, so giving Mr Clarke a majority of at least 25.

No one I have spoken to believes that Mr Clarke or anyone else can win outright on the first ballot. The contest then goes to a second ballot. This is a misnomer, for it is not a second ballot at all but a new election, in which candidates can withdraw, as Lady Thatcher did in 1990, and new ones join the fun, as Mr Major and Mr Douglas Hurd both did at the same time.

In the so-called second ballot the surcharge requirement disappears and a vote of 83 is sufficient however many candidates may be standing. On 17 June, when this ballot is due to take place, we are more likely to see withdrawals than additions. It was rumoured earlier that one of the late entrants might be the affable Mr Michael Ancram, as he likes to call himself (for, as the son and heir of the Marquess of Lothian, he bears the honorary title of the Earl of Ancram). But as he has now thrown his support behind Mr Hague, this outcome seems unlikely.

If no one obtains an absolute majority, the top two go on to a third ballot. This did not happen either in 1965 or in 1990. On the first occasion Sir Edward Heath failed to win an absolute majority on the first ballot but Reginald Maudling withdrew. On the second occasion Mr Major failed by two to win an absolute majority on the second ballot but Mr Hurd and Mr Michael Heseltine withdrew. According to a strict reading of the rules Mr Major and Mr Heseltine should have been compelled to contest a third ballot. In 1997, by contrast, the candidates will fight it out to the bloody end.