Here's to the War of the Spanish Succession

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL PORTILLO pushes it. Where an ordinary politician, having made two 'philosophical' speeches about Toryism that were badly received by party managers, would have shut up, Mr Portillo makes a third. Where most Euro-sceptics, after the recent controversy about Britain's European future, would have lowered their profiles, he raises his, with robustly hostile comments on the single currency. Does he then come back into line? Sort of. Does he recant? Certainly not.

His political instinct is the opposite of John Major's. The Chief Secretary's pushiness is often explained as immaturity. Wrong: it is more the result of his ideological self-assurance. If the Prime Minister's style echoes his education as a party whip, Mr Portillo is still, at some level, the Thatcherite controversialist. He knows precisely what kind of Britain he wants, and anything else comes second. Where Mr Major strives to reconcile conflicting views on Europe, the younger man seems to yearn to clarify and hasten the thing on to a final choice.

This makes him, naturally, an uncomfortable presence in the Major Cabinet. Personally, he charms most senior colleagues. But when they talk about his disdain for the necessary compromise, there is a tang of unease in the air. He isn't quite like the rest. He's in a different league from the other right wingers, both tougher and more talented. Some muse that there is a darkly proud Castilian lurking close beneath the surface of the English Tory. But to complain that Mr Portillo is 'overplaying his hand' is to miss the point. His is a style that relies on upping the ante, on keeping the story moving. He hasn't made a mistake and he won't shut up: this is a contest between politics as administration and politics as mission.

For whatever liberals may think of him, the Chief Secretary's flashing certainties are potent on the right. His vision of a British national renaissance, the revival of parliamentary authority at home and a rejection of federal entanglements abroad - free people, free trade - is vivid and romantic. For the generation of Conservatives who came into politics to follow Margaret Thatcher, who loved her, it has a profound emotional appeal. It offers the believers a chance to participate in History. 'Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide.' And this appeal should not be underestimated.

It disgusts the Government's men of business, however. They see the programme as a ridiculous anachronism. Real life is about deals, about making the European Union work, about team-playing, not self- indulgent rhetoric. Serious people get on with it.

The Prime Minister frets privately sometimes that there aren't quite enough serious people left; that the parliamentary party may be becoming so irresponsible that it will soon be unable to support an administration, under him or anyone. It is reasonable to expect that, when he grapples with the aftermath of the 9 June elections, this theme will figure prominently. Either the party ceases its European attitude-striking, forgets the Portillo-ite heroics, and gets on with the boring business of retrenchment, or it will face general election results similar to the European ones.

His problem is that Mr Portillo is not only unsackable but is a prime candidate for promotion in the looming summer reshuffle. He is exceedingly popular with a swathe of the party - the people who call principle what Mr Major would call egotism. One possibility being canvassed is the sly one of making him Tory party chairman - a chalice that has poisoned quite a few leadership contenders over the years. Is Mr Portillo politically strong enough to refuse that job and demand a spending department instead? It's an interesting question.

But departmental changes are only part of Mr Major's armoury for dealing with a summer crisis. There is gossip that 34-plus rebels may announce in June they want a leadership contest in the autumn. So his grip on the parliamentary party is, if anything, even more important than a Whitehall reshuffle.

How could he strengthen it? He could go for a Faustian bargain with the right, or rely on invective and warning. But here is a cheekier thought. It is a rich irony that the toughest defender of Mr Major happens to be the Tories' other half- Spaniard, the former whip, Tristan Garel-Jones. Seen last week in the BBC's True Brits programme on the Foreign Office, he is currently out of government, but if Mr Major wanted him back, he would, I think, get him. The right's nightmare would be the appointment of Mr Garel-Jones as Chief Whip, an idea so hilariously provocative it would provoke coronaries at the Carlton Club.

For that reason alone, it probably won't happen. But Mr Major has also been urged to appoint a new minister to be a propagandist and street-fighter on his behalf. Some supporters believe it is demeaning for him to have to act as daily advocate for his own premiership. Someone else should be doing that, plus promoting Mr Major's agenda throughout Whitehall, savaging disloyal ministers, attacking journalists - all the dirty stuff.

Mr Garel-Jones, who is around Downing Street quite a bit at the moment, is already doing the job unofficially, tearing into Mr Major's critics both in the lobbies and in print. He is a political addict who has been trying to take the cure, but the cure isn't working. And he is one of the few people who is as determined and pushy on the left as Mr Portillo is on the right. The two men have known each other for ages and get on. But as combatants they would be perfectly matched. I'm afraid this is all much too neat. But just imagine it: for Mr Major to provoke the War of the Spanish Succession would be a glorious gesture at a world that accuses him of greyness.

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