Are we heading for the collapse of A Stout Party? The Tories have been engaged in yet another round of in-fighting over Europe and the Government's policy towards a common currency. In The Times last Saturday, John Major said once again that he would keep his options open, and refused to rule out a common currency in the lifetime of the next Parliament.
And if quarrels over Europe were not enough, the Hamilton/Al Fayed/Greer "scandal" broke once more to the glee of Labour and the relish of the popular press. The Prime Minister has hurried to limit the damage, but the matter could not have come at a more embarrassing time.
There are occasions when Mr Major must be close to despair. But to what extent are the party's problems a result of a lack of leadership on his part? The question is one that has, so far, been posed only in private.
Sir Nicholas Bonsor, the boxing baronet, is permitted to get away with open criticism of Ken Clarke. A junior minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth office, he went on The World at One to attack his more senior colleague. I caught a glimpse of him later on telly, manfully striding towards the BBC studios followed by the usual pack of Euro-sceptics. I picked out from among them Sir Michael Spicer and Bill Cash. Bonsor's last stand was clearly a calculated one, but he was forced into a humiliating withdrawal later that day. Should he not have been sacked? I have sat under seven prime ministers; I fear only Major would have let him get away with it.
David Heathcote-Amory was permitted earlier this year to write and publish a pamphlet attacking government policy while he was Paymaster General. Presumably, he wrote it in the Government's time, and then, at his own convenience, resigned and published it, scoring hits with both barrels. He should have got the push as soon as the Prime Minister knew he was putting pen to paper.
If the Conservative Party is to avoid a defeat next April on the scale of 1945 or 1906, everything will depend on Mr Major, and, to a great extent, upon his performance at Bournemouth next Friday afternoon. He is facing this week the most difficult party conference since Hailsham divested himself of his title in 1963, and one at which he must make the speech of his life. All Tory conferences are stage-managed; rallies at which the "faithful" rub shoulders with the great ones of the party, and are then sent home raring to go.
This year, it is going to be far harder to stage-manage the conference in the traditional manner. There will be no more balloons, no more Dame Vera Lynn singing the White Cliffs of Dover. Lady Thatcher might make mischief. John Redwood, Cash and Michael Spicer will do their best to steal the headlines, using a poll of Tory candidates to demonstrate that the party has become one of "Little England".
The "fringe" will be dominated by Redwood and his supporters. They will compete against the platform in the conference proper where only Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and John Gummer can be relied upon to rally the troops. Portillo is a covert Euro-sceptic whose recent conference speeches have been a disgrace. No doubt he will make yet another. Peter Lilley will either sing a silly song or recite a sillier poem, and then attack the poor. He, too, is not on Major's side. Neither is the oleaginous Michael Howard. All three are numbered among Major's "bastards".
It will all be left to the Prime Minister on the Friday afternoon to give the party back its confidence, and to enthuse the party activist to go out and work for the return of his Government. Unlike Heseltine, Major is no orator, although he can rely upon a great deal of personal affection. Did he not do the trick in '92? But if we are to have any chance whatever, he must stamp his authority upon the Conservative Party as never before. The sly and saturnine Redwood, whose ambition threatens to bring us down, must be routed before it is too late. And, nice woman though she is, it will not be enough to cast Norma Major as "the Tories' secret weapon".
In 1990, I voted for Michael Heseltine as leader. I do not regret having done so. Last year, I voted for Mr Major against the opportunist John Redwood. In my 30 years as an MP I have witnessed a social and cultural change come over the Tory party - a change for the worse. Even Steve Norris, for God's sake, describes the Tories in his about-to-be-published autobiography, as being divided between "nobs and nerds". There are precious few nobs.
There is nothing dishonourable when it comes to Europe in keeping one's options open. The history of the Tory party with regard to Europe is a dismal tale of missing every bus but the last, and then complaining loudly that we were not in Europe at the formative stage.
Were Mr Major to allow his options to be closed, and thus to surrender to the demands of populism and narrow nationalism, he would miss this bus and lose the election. The Tories, in power for 17 years, would be out for 20. In opposition, Redwood (or Portillo) would play Bonar Law to Ken Clarke's Balfour. The party would split, leading to a realignment of British politics. The importance of Mr Major's speech on Friday afternoon cannot be exaggerated.
The author is the Conservative MP for Aldershot. Owing to ill health he is not standing at the election.