Even before they lose, the Tory knives are out

A right- winger will still need to appeal across the spectrum. William Hague could fit the bill

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The blaming has already begun. So far it is confined to a few bad headlines about differences between the Tory party chairman Brian Mawhinney and Lord Saatchi over the running of the Tory campaign. That is real enough. But it is trivial compared with what will happen, if the polls are even half right, in the early hours of Friday.

We can expect blame for a Tory defeat to be dished out on a much grander scale than a bit of tactical infighting in Central Office over who vetoed what advertisement in a campaign which, if it is lost, was probably lost six months ago or more.

The running, televised, inquest on why the Tories lost will take on, inevitably, the flavour of Labour post-1979. As in 1979, it will be mainly (though not exclusively) centred on the post-defeat leadership campaign. Part of being in politics, except for a handful of the most detached and far sighted of its practitioners, is parading the belief that your party would always be in power if it played its cards properly.

And so the right, ignoring the fact that there was no reason but dogma for ruling out the single currency before it was necessary, will blame first Ken Clarke for insisting on keeping the issue open, and then John Major for letting him do it. The left will argue that it was the disloyalty and divisiveness of ideologically obsessed right-wing backbenchers that cost the Tories their support over the parliament. The left will have much the stronger case, but will be in a minority.

Just how small a minority cannot yet be certain, of course. It is possible to exaggerate the undoubted rightward shift there will be in the Conservative Party after Thursday. The committed right will certainly outnumber the committed left and centre-left in almost any electoral outcome. But it will not overwhelm the party. That does not undermine the argument that a seriously Euro-sceptic right-winger has the best chance of winning. But it does mean that even a right-winger will have to have some appeal to the left. A fortiori it means that Michael Heseltine will have to appeal to the right if he is to have a chance. As his authorship of the famous Blair-on-Kohl's-knee advertisement might just help him to do.

Forecasts, of course, are a mug's game. Few would have predicted, at this stage before polling day in October 1974, Margaret Thatcher as the next leader. But let us make some rash assumptions. One is that the party will not this time opt for someone like John Major who appeals to all sides from the middle: it will have been there, done that. Which would be bad news for Ian Lang (always supposing he keeps his seat) and Gillian Shephard. And for Stephen Dorrell and Malcolm Rifkind, clever, and by no means friendless, men who by trimming to the prevailing mood have alienated the left without convincing the right. That is one reason why Clarke could run without being humiliated.

Mr Major's timing could be crucial. He might, especially if Labour wins by a landslide, step down straight away. Norma Major, for one, might well want him to be shot of his party at the earliest opportunity. And it would free him of the uncomfortable role of presiding over a shadow cabinet several of whose most prominent members are taking part in a leadership contest in which his own stewardship of the party will be an issue.

One quite widespread assumption in the party is nevertheless that Major will announce by the weekend that he is standing down, but will soldier on until June, allowing a leadership contest by the summer. Secondly, there will be kingmakers as well as candidates: on the right, for example, whoever Peter Lilley supports will have great influence because, while he might just stand himself, he is widely seen on the right as the most desirable chancellor-in-waiting.

John Redwood, freed of cabinet responsibility, has been able to campaign semi-permanently. But has it helped? Michael Portillo, William Hague and Michael Howard can all argue that Redwood was disloyal in ways that they have not been. And all of them presently look to be more plausible candidates of the right than Redwood. Portillo probably has the edge in excitement and youth to pit against Tony Blair. He has been uncompromisingly a man of the right. I would not be amazed if a mainstream, even leftish, MP like Tim Yeo backed him. But he will need time to broaden his appeal.

Of the right-wingers Hague is the one with most natural appeal across the spectrum. My guess is that his ministerial supporters could range as widely as James Paice, James Arbuthnot, Andrew Mitchell and Sir George Young. And that he will run.

We should not exaggerate the importance of the coming Tory leadership campaign. It is as if these people have been so much the warp and woof of Britain that we cannot stop taking an unhealthy interest in what happens to them. We - let alone the Tories - are still unprepared for the culture shock which a new government will mean. What will matter most from 2 May and then for months, even years to come, is what sort of government Blair runs, not who is in charge of an opposition party which could be denied office for two terms or even more.

But we should not underestimate it either. For the Tories will still have the capacity to move the political market. Especially on Europe. To take one example, a Tory party led by an uncompromising opponent of the single currency will make it that much unlikelier that Blair will risk a referendum on EMU.

It remains to be seen how far a first-ballot competition between the right-wingers will itself shift the candidates to the right. In the heat of what amounts to a right-wing primary will the candidates be able to resist ruling out the single currency for all time rather than just for the next parliament? And will that make a future Tory election victory more likely? Or merely risk making Labour the party of big business and propelling Clarke to the back-benches as the leader of a dangerous "Peelite" tendency.

Clarke is the man Labour would most fear. But, the candidates face the familiar problem of the Anglo-Saxon political right. How to be right wing enough to win the party but not too right wing to lose the country. It is a job description that would fit William Hague rather well.

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