Heseltine may be a mangy old lion but he could still roar

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I USED to hold the theory that the State Opening of Parliament had been invented by David Lloyd George as a diversion from one of his baser political enterprises, in much they same way as he made up the ceremony for the Investiture of the Prince of Wales. This is not so. Nevertheless monarchs did not always open Parliament in person. In 1828, for example, it was opened by commission, while the Speech from the Throne was read not by George IV but by the Lord Chancellor. Queen Victoria usually neglected to turn up after the death of her beloved Albert.

There is really no sense in requiring the present Queen to utter a pack of lies, preceded by a lot of business conducted by Black Rod and succeeded by a variety of silly walks. Lord Mackay, who has a more euphonious voice than Her Majesty, could do the job better. They should also get rid of that daft Cap of Maintenance. Mr Tony Blair might make the abolition of the State Opening of Parliament in its present fake-medieval form part of New Labour's programme. Of course, he will do nothing of the kind, for fear of offending someone or other.

But though the form of the ceremony may remain unchanged under Mr Blair, the feeling in Westminster is that we have seen the last one under a Major administration. More and more members are arriving at the conclusion that there will have to be an election in 1996, maybe sooner rather than later. If there is a cold winter and a burst of activity by the Grim Reaper, Mr John Major's majority may have disappeared by April.

His present majority is six. It had been reduced to five by the defection - or conversion - of Mr Alan Howarth. It rose to six with the sad death of Mr Derek Enright. If Labour hold his Hemsworth seat, where they polled 71 per cent of the vote last time, Mr Major will be back at five.

Since the general election, 13 members have died, an average of more than four a year. In the 1987 Parliament, 20 died, an annual average of four. It needs only three adverse by-elections for Mr Major's majority to be eliminated. Forty of his members are 65 or over. Actuarial forecasts obtained by Reuter's News Service are no different from figures calculated by simpler arithmetic on the basis of past deaths. In any 12-month period we may confidently expect about four members to meet the Great Speaker in the Sky.

This column wishes no harm to anybody, not even to Conservative members of the present Parliament. But, at the same time, it treats death in a spirit of realism. That is one of the advantages of having been given a religious upbringing. Mr Major may be lucky. So far he has enjoyed great good fortune when it mattered. Or he may not be lucky, when it will be profitless for him to try to stitch together a deal with Mr David Trimble and his nine Ulster Unionists (who are supplemented by four unofficial Unionists). With Mr James Molyneaux this might have worked: with Mr Trimble there is less chance.

There is another possibility that is being talked about. Mr Major may simply decide to go to the country in the spring or early summer without being forced to by the loss of his parliamentary majority.

C R Attlee held an election in 1951 after his government had lasted 18 months and when it had a majority of five. This was a disastrous decision which changed the course of post-war history. If Attlee had hung on it would have been Labour, not the Conservatives, that would have benefited from the improvement in the world economy which started in 1952. To be fair to him, the majority was considered "unworkable" in the 1950s, as it is not 40 years later. The true reason, however, was that Attlee and his colleagues were ill, dispirited or both.

In February 1974 the circumstances were different but the outcome was the same - a premature election which was lost. Sir Edward Heath went to the country when his government had over 15 months to run and a perfectly good majority. Even Lord Callaghan in 1979 was fatalistic. If he had possessed a will to live, he could have avoided the vote of confidence which brought him down, and gone on to November. Mr Major may be in a similar mood: oh, what the hell; nothing to be done; end of an era; that sort of thing.

There is yet another possibility. It would mean the continuation of the Government but the departure of Mr Major. He may leave voluntarily to make way for Mr Michael Heseltine. Indeed, it is rumoured that the two of them envisaged such a transfer of power when they met on the morning of Mr Major's re-election in the summer.

Several people at Westminster said to me last week that it had never happened before. As if that was any sort of objection in British politics! In fact it has happened before. Ramsay MacDonald surrendered the premiership of the "National" government to Stanley Baldwin in 1935. Baldwin stood down in favour of Neville Chamberlain in 1937 in a government that was also called "National", though with even less justification. Harold Wilson resigned in 1976, when he might have been succeeded either by James Callaghan or by Michael Foot (who on the first ballot came within eight votes of Jim).

Mr Major has already been Prime Minister for five years, longer than (in chronological order) Balfour, Campbell-Bannerman, Bonar Law, Chamberlain, Eden, Home, Heath and Callaghan. But Prime Ministers tend to think about their place in the history books rather than in the works of reference. My feeling is that, if he secured peace in Ireland, Mr Major would be ready to go.

It may never happen - either peace in Ireland or the Prime Minister's voluntary departure. Mr Heseltine is not the force he was. The great beast of the jungle is now more of a mangy old lion in the travelling circus, going through the motions, from time to time emitting ferocious roars. The children pretend to be frightened because they do not want to hurt the old brute's feelings.

Indeed, Mr Heseltine seems less of a Deputy Prime Minister than the Minister for Arguing the Toss with Mr John Humphrys, Mr Jeremy Paxman and Mr Jon Snow. As such he believes in getting his retaliation in first. He will begin to assault the helpless interviewer, accusing him of mendacity, distortion and, if at all possible, even worse crimes, when the wretched chap has hardly had time to open his mouth. As we know, broadcasting interviewers are unpopular with the voters. So are all journalists. But interviewers are specially unpopular because they are considered not only untrustworthy but, in addition, "rude". However, if politicians are rude to them first, the balance of sympathy may well swing back. Has Mr Heseltine thought of that?

And yet, he remains the only member of the Cabinet to whom the Tories can turn in the hope that he can work a miracle. He would certainly remove the smile from Mr Blair's countenance.