Doom is Major's best weapon

Merry mayhem: why Portillo-ites may not vote for Redwood, while screaming Heselteenies do
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The Independent Online
He was good. He was very good indeed. Say what you like about him, John Redwood gave a mean press conference yesterday. As Welsh Secretary he has come across as dour, terse, buttoned-up. But announcing his bid to destroy John Major in a sweatily over-excited Westminster room, he was serene, self-assured, even funny. In the eye of the storm, he seemed a man at peace with himself. He is going to give the Prime Minister a serious fight.

Redwood is bad news for Major for some paradoxical reasons. He is not a single-issue obsessive but a shrewd right-wing policy man with an eye on Middle England. He is not a classic gold-plated shit; when he says that he hasn't gone round being disloyal about the Prime Minister in private, he is speaking the truth. In any conversations I have had with him, he has up to now been punctiliously loyal. He promises not to fight a "dirty war'' against Major, and credits him with some notable achievements.

These things mean that Redwood cannot be easily painted as a lunatic or a bad man, which are the two commonest smears used against people who try to topple prime ministers. A dirty war against, say, Norman Lamont, would have rather suited the Major camp. It will be harder against Redwood.

It is, of course, just a little odd to announce that you think the Prime Minister's decision to resign his leadership of the Tory party is so tactically silly that - well, er, you are going to try to grab the prize for yourself. But after all, this is British Tory politics we are talking about, not Californian male bonding. Redwood has seen his moment, and dared.

In politics, though, "who dares, wins'' is not a reliable motto. Though Major and Redwood will portray this as a straightforward, bare-knuckle contest between themselves, the truth is less simple and less heroic. In fact, the outcome may hinge on Tory MPs who don't care much for either of them.

The behaviour of the Portillo and Heseltine camps in particular will be critical; for this is the death-dance not only of the two Johns, but of the two Michaels as well. Both of the latter are currently stuck inside Cabinet loyalty: their protestations of support for Major came yesterday through teeth so gritted as to make them barely audible. Both can be expected to start campaigning for the second round before the first round is over.

The biggest tactical question yesterday was for Michael Portillo, who sees Redwood galloping in to snatch away his inheritance as the standard- bearer and crown prince of the Thatcherites. Let us linger for a moment on his agonising dilemma. He and John Redwood are not - how shall we put this? - consumed by the ardour of their mutual admiration. Portillo had things well planned. The ground was fertile. The speeches were not only carefully written and lustily delivered; they were edited and collected, too. The timing was becoming ever clearer. The Youth were keen. So, indeed, were the Age, in the shape of Baroness Thatcher and various Eighties-vintage peers. The plot was simplifying nicely.

Now along comes Redwood and threatens to wreck everything. The two men had a brief meeting yesterday morning, and I'd have given my whole collection of Power Ranger stickers to have been a fly on that wall. Now Portillo is sending out the strong message that if Redwood pushes Major into a second ballot then Portillo, released of all obligations, will certainly stand.

But Portillo and Redwood cover much the same party constituency. If they both stand they will let in Michael Heseltine. Or maybe even that John Major. Portillo might expect the less attractive Redwood to stand aside in return for the promise of, say, the Chancellorship. But if Redwood has shown courage, forged a loyal backbench team working for him, and done rather well, why should he?

Redwood reckons himself a cleverer, more serious and consistent politician than Portillo - he was a privatiser long before it became fashionable, and hostile to the poll tax even when it was fashionable. He considers Portillo over-hyped, and cannot have much enjoyed the recent highly favourable BBC Panorama profile of his rival. If he achieves anything like the political momentum built up by that first-round outsider Margaret Thatcher in 1975, why should he bow, smile sweetly and say: "Over to you, Michael''?

It is therefore in Portillo's interests to have lots of abstentions and spoilt ballot papers, denying Major outright victory but ensuring that Redwood doesn't do too well, allowing him to march in on second ballot, perhaps with bigger-gun ministerial support. This outcome will be tricky to achieve; if too many Portillo-ites abstain, they may simply hand a straightforward first-round victory to Major.

Meanwhile, I wouldn't be surprised if pleas were going out from the Portillo camp to the likes of Lady Thatcher and Lord Tebbit to refuse John Redwood their unequivocal support.

What, meanwhile of Michael Heseltine, still the likeliest winner if Major falls? For obvious reasons his supporters, too, want a second ballot. But Heseltine's position is stronger if Redwood does quite well. Then he won't stand down for Portillo, and the right is divided. Screaming Heselteenies may therefore not abstain, as one might expect, but vote for Redwood. This would produce the glorious paradox of right-wing Portillo Thatcherites refusing to vote for the right-wing Redwood; while leftish anti-Thatcher Tories do vote for him. Merry mayhem.

At least it gives some indication why anyone who claims to know now how this game will go is either a windbag or an airhead. For all sorts of reasons, many MPs may abstain in the Major-Redwood contest, which makes it harder for the Prime Minister to win outright next week. But if there is a second ballot, there may be up to half a dozen candidates; and then a third ballot. Is it possible, in all the turmoil, that Major might come jogging through the middle, just as in 1990? Entirely possible.

It is also possible, however, that the Government now simply blows apart - that it can't sustain a parliamentary majority and is forced to concede a general election this year. This is not likely; but these are strange times.

If either Redwood or Portillo emerged as the new prime minister and tried to implement the sort of European policy they talk about, is it possible to imagine Sir Edward Heath, or Tristan Garel-Jones, or Hugh Dykes, or even Kenneth Clarke, to name just a few, trooping through the division lobbies on their behalf? Not really.After the past few days, would they be able to ask for party loyalty with a straight face? And whether they did or not, would they be listened to?

These are the doom-laden questions which lie behind the sense of elation and smiling political attack of Redwood's press conference. They are John Major's best weapon against him. For the truth is that the Tories are now embarked on a slithering, stomach-churning journey without brakes or steering mechanism, destination unknown. A smash is as likely as a triumph. They may find themselves first disintegrating as a party of government and then being finished off at the polls - perhaps even undergoing that long-predicted split.

Given that Britain is experiencing low-inflationary growth, has lower unemployment than many European competitors and faces no imminent disasters at home or abroad, this is a remarkable prospect, even for the modern Tory party. It is perhaps one that John Major's enemies need to pause over before returning to the breathless task of totting up votes and abstentions.