'Dogged does it' is the Tories' only hope

The appetite for a leadership contest is waning. But the party has no other bribes to boost its appeal
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The Independent Online
Does there come a moment when the political world becomes ashamed of itself, embarrassed by its own predictable obsessions? When people become so bored of the plot that they turn away with a fastidious shudder? If so, then the ousting of John Major is surely the story that will not happen.

Panic has already become pass. However bad the May elections, the game has moved on. It is not that Major is revealed as a titan. His admirers, struggling manfully against the anti-Major consensus, tend to overdo it. He is not so good. But he is not so bad, either. He wasn't responsible for the sleaze and division that has so hurt the party; and he wasn't responsible for the post-Black Wednesday economic revival, either. He is an all right, in-between Prime Minister doing an all right, in-betweeny sort of job.

Which - assuming that he wants to stay, and he shows no signs of not wanting to - all sensible Tories ought to let him get on with. It would be a disaster for them to put themselves through a contest. The party is cracked. It is like a powdery old house which needs only a door-slam to bring it crashing down. A fight for the Prime Ministership now would, in all probability, put the Tories out of office this year.

Even anti-Majorites recognise this, which is why they have been muttering in dark corners about the prospects for an old-fashioned, Macmillan-era putsch, a "civilised", bloodless changeover to which the Prime Minister himself assented, however reluctantly.

Michaels Heseltine and Portillo would meet and parley in the car-park of some obscure country pub, putting together a left-right deal which would then be blessed by enough other senior ministers to make it a fait accompli. The results of the conspiracy could then be transmitted to senior backbenchers. It would be political execution: private, brutal and short.

The more one thinks about it, though, the more it seems like fantasy. The idea that, say, Kenneth Clarke would allow the leadership to pass to Heseltine without a challenge is absurd. He would feel that his wing of the party deserved to be represented; and that to shut it out with a re-run of the old ''magic circle'' system which his hero Iain Macleod exposed 30 years ago would be intolerable.

Nor does the idea look as attractive to key people on the right as it did, even a few weeks ago. Would Portillo be in a stronger position to become leader if he were implicated in a Heseltine administration which then failed at the polls, or if he stuck quietly with the current leader and bided his time?

Finally, and more important than all that, the whole business would be too shabby to work. There would be no policy excuse for it; there is no poll tax attached to the name of Major which needs to be dumped. There are no significant policy changes available to another leader, on Europe or anything else. It would be an act of fear, unclothed by principle. Voters would be more disgusted by such an execution than excited.

I conclude that, despite the likely disaster of the local elections, no cabinet conspiracy will follow them. The key figures are already lined up to urge calm - the Chancellor, for instance, is going on the BBC's Breakfast with Frost, and Virginia Bottomley is being lined up for Radio Free Chad.

All of which may not be enough to stop a spontaneous backbench revolt. There are plenty of MPs just waiting for the chance to run about screaming and waving their arms. But if Portillo, Clarke, Heseltine and the rest call in their admirers and order them to back off, it ought to be possible to head off such a rebellion - even for the Conservative Party.

Assuming, then, that Mr Major is not in a mood to offer his own head on a stick following awful election results, what else can the Cabinet offer the party? Well, there are tax cuts, promised early, perhaps even implemented early. Jeremy Hanley, the party chairman, seems to favour this, which ought to be quite enough reason for everybody else to recoil.

But in case it isn't, the Chancellor has been making his opposition to an early cut abundantly clear to Tory backbenchers. The ambiguous economic figures justify this and he is strongly backed by other ministers. Douglas Hurd will be warning the party not to press Clarke for precise tax promises in a speech to his West Oxfordshire party tomorrow night.

Some in the Treasury seem just a little nervous about how unflinching No. 10 itself will be on the tax issue in the months ahead. The recent hint that elderly people faced with having to sell their homes to pay for care, rather than passing them to their children, should be helped by the state, was an ominous sign. To spend public money so that asset- rich families don't have to meet their own obligations, ensuring cruises and second homes for a bunch of 50-year-olds, is a pretty indefensible one, a shameless pre-electoral sort of wheeze. It came, apparently, from the No. 10 policy unit and deserves to go straight back into the Bad Ideas file. (Or, since that must be full up by now, the dustbin.)

So, no putsch. No bribes. No nothing? Major could always turn to the news story of last resort and reshuffle his Cabinet again. But given that the criticism would be more of him than of any other individual, that would hardly do.

The last policy card is the one that cannot be played now, which is the determination of quite a lot of Her Majesty's Government to stomp out of the intergovernmental conference in a strop, and go straight to the country warning of the dangers of a foreign yoke. This, in some manner, seems likely. Here again, though, it will be tricky, even if Hurd has resigned by then. (He has now completely baffled everyone about his intentions, and is pretty contented by that.) Would Clarke, never mind the lesser figures, be on for a general election campaign of raging Europhobia?

By now, the eagle-eyed reader will have spotted that the word "Clarke" has popped up regularly in today's column. It is Clarke whose determination to stand in any election kills the notion of a neat cabinet conspiracy against Major. It is Clarke who stands most robustly against early tax- cutting promises. And it is Clarke whose substantial shadow falls between the Conservative Party and the wilder extremes of a Union Jack election.

Though the Chancellor hasn't had a happy few months, his political revival is welcome. He is almost neurotically unneurotic. He stands, though not alone, as a symbol of moderate, non-panicking Toryism, the enemy of slick tricks and radical wheezes. Along with Hurd, he is the kind of Tory who thinks ditching prime ministers is just a bit naff, a bit demeaning.

The Tories could do with a few more like this. For they have, in the end, no better chance than "dogged does it". Now, as everyone knows, their plight is so bad that this time dogged might not do it. But anything else would be worse.