Grown-ups take the wreckers in hand

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THERE is still a clear division in the Tory party, but it's one that should help John Major while diminishing his enemy Margaret Thatcher. It is not between left and right but between paid-up supporters of the party of government and irresponsible oppositionalists - between grown-up politicians and juvenile ones. And finally the silent majority of the party is expressing disgust with disloyalty as a way of life.

Baroness Thatcher must understand that this morning. She got a stark warning from the Tory faithful yesterday - the nearest she has had to an open rebuke from her own people. As she entered the conference hall, everyone rose in ovation. Then, rather promptly, most sat down again. A Thatcherite minority whistled, waved Union Jacks, and pounded the floor. But the rest sat in increasingly stony silence, arms folded. Mr Major's ovation, shortly afterwards, was longer, louder and warmer.

So there she had it: if a few were determinedly enthusiastic, most were even more determinedly unenthusiastic. She has overdone it. I saw matrons looking pointedly into the middle distance; old men with faces like Easter Island statues. They are fed up with the vengeance of the memoir-writers, the digging up of reeking animosities. They understand that this is a battle in a graveyard. They were Conservatives before they were Thatcherites and they are Conservatives still.

What does this mean for the campaign to get rid of Mr Major? His position is still weak. There is little enthusiasm for him in the bars and halls round Blackpool. That ovation he got was less for him personally, more for the idea of loyalty and unity. Supportive ministers are concerned by his depressions, his dark moods, his bad days. He worries, sometimes aloud, about whether he can go on, how he can get through.

But he has yet another chance. There is a dull doggedness about the looming winter battles on tax and public spending which works to his advantage. Serious Tory MPs know perfectly well that if the Government loses those battles it is politically dead. It would be paralysed and literally purposeless. Until the winter ends, that threat makes the Major leadership issue seem a second-order question, even a frivolous one. It will surely recur next year. But for the time being, the imminence of political confrontation actually helps the Prime Minister's authority.

The mood was defined yesterday by two key players: Kenneth Clarke, and his number two at the Treasury, Michael Portillo. Mr Clarke's speech was, in tactical terms, a reckless gamble: he treated it like an adult audience. There were grim facts, plain warnings, only the occasional party political jibe. As a result of this common sense he was heard soberly, by which I mean pretty silently. (It is an almost inviolable rule that the better the speech at a Tory conference, the worse its reception.)

Just as significant as Mr Clarke's speech was Mr Portillo's. He has been adopted by many of the Thatcherite dissidents as their prince. He is in a sensitive position. He has strong anti-statist views and likes making big, philosophical speeches about them. He believes the private sector must drive deeper into the health service and education. He believes in the shrinking state, an ever-smaller burden of taxes.

You can see just how easily those principles can be misused by Thatcherite dissidents. They could even be cited as coded support for some future rebellion on tax rises. The Tory MPs and activists who bay against the extension of VAT look naturally to the Thatcherite chief secretary.

There is, in short, a potential conflict between Mr Portillo's position in the Tory party and his position in the Government. The merest hint of equivocation from him on the painful and unpopular positions being taken by Mr Clarke would be explosive. So Mr Portillo's speeches on the state are watched with more than passing interest by other cabinet ministers. One put it to me that 'the question of whether Michael is a grown-up politician is a central one for us'.

Last night, at a Blackpool fringe meeting, he answered it. The speech was as anti-state as ever. But on the hard choices ahead for the Government, he gave his right- wing supporters the same kind of harsh truth as Mr Clarke hammered out in the conference hall.

Mr Portillo mocked the 'facile slogan' of 'public spending cuts good, tax rises bad'. And he went on: 'To do only that which is popular is not to govern. To choose those elements of a government's programme that you will support is to dine a la carte: a luxury that a party of government cannot afford. And to pretend that slogans provide the means of curing our problems overnight is sheer escapism.'

That was a message the oppositionist right will dislike. It has done Mr Portillo no good with his natural supporters. But it certainly puts him on the side of the grown- up politicians and thus, in the longer term, makes him a more credible future leader. (Lady Thatcher, by contrast, is coming extremely close to no longer being a serious politician.)

I am not saying that the ideological argument about the role of the state is over in the Tory party. Just the opposite: a speech made by Douglas Hurd at the same time as Mr Portillo's was in direct contradiction to the younger politician's philosophy. It was no good, said the Foreign Secretary, trying to deal with the problems of the Nineties in the language of the Eighties: 'We should not give the impression that we believe in a permanent cultural revolution, in the style of Trotsky or Chairman Mao . . . We must show that we are not driven by ideology to question every function of the state . . .'

As long as there is a Tory party, that central argument will continue. But the question is how: in a relatively mature way, between colleagues, or as part of a destructive civil war? We still don't know, but the mood is better. The Thatcherite wreckers are being driven a little further to the wings of the party. Serious Tories are all now scared about the prospect of political disaster - Mr Portillo and Mr Hurd, from opposite ends of the spectrum, used remarkably similar language about the decline in national morale and the widespread cynicism about politicians. I do not know whether the Tory party can stage a full-scale political recovery. But I think it may be regaining its nerve.