Here again, we encounter the volatility of current Tory politics. If there had been a leadership contest a year ago, there would have been only one serious candidate: Kenneth Clarke. At that stage there would have been little point in Michael Heseltine running. Now the position has been reversed. Mr Heseltine has pulled into a clear lead; if there were a vacancy next week, Mr Clarke would not even come second.
Mr Clarke himself is blase about the decline in his position. He blames it on the tax increases, arguing that no Chancellor could be popular in current circumstances. But as the recovery gains momentum and the voters look forward to tax cuts, Mr Clarke sees no reason why he should not bounce back; he is a bouncy fellow.
Others are not so sure. Some believe that recent events have exposed basic flaws in the Clarke technique. The Treasury has undoubtedly been clumsy in the way that it has handled the tax issue, and Mr Clarke's own interventions have displayed political ineptness - which is odd, for it was his reputation as a politician that got him the job.
One senior official who recently returned to the Treasury after a stint elsewhere believes that he has diagnosed the problem. He is surprised by the extent to which the Treasury has become depoliticised in recent years. Previous Chancellors were able to rely on a succession of outstanding political advisers. Michael Portillo, Howard Davies, Andrew Tyrie and David Cameron all added an edge to the Treasury's political presentation. Although Kenneth Clarke's principal adviser, Tessa Keswick, has many qualities, she is not an economist - and beyond her, the Chancellor has no one of consequence.
Nor has he succeeded in mobilising his junior ministers as an effective fighting force. Earlier this year, Michael Portillo and Stephen Dorrell vied with one another in constructing elegant speeches on the nature of Conservatism, with limited success. They would have been more usefully employed on the tax front, trying to thwart Labour's attempts to wrest away the Tories' number one electoral asset.
Again, Mr Clarke seemed unconcerned. His lackadaisical approach is part of his charm, and works to his advantage when matters are going well. If Tory backbenchers were generally happy with life, their confidence would be further boosted by having such a relaxed, jack-the-lad bloke in Number 11. But they are not, and the Chancellor's style grates on many of them.
It would be foolish to write off Mr Clarke. He is going to be a big figure in the front rank of Tory politics for many years yet, and could well become Prime Minister. But his share price is less than half what it was a year ago, and buyers should be cautious.
Anyone who bought Heseltines 12 months ago is now sitting on a huge gain; it may be time for some profit-taking. It was said that Mr Heseltine had learnt three lessons from his 1990 leadership bid. The first was the importance of placating the right; the second, the need to appear as the party unity candidate; and the third, that he who wields the dagger never wears the crown. He has been trying to put all of them into practice, especially the third. Next time he wants to be the victor, not the assassin.
But there is one lesson that he seems incapable of learning: the danger of peaking too soon. Last time, Michael Heseltine campaigned for four-and-a-half years; John Major campaigned for four- and-a-half days. It is not as if Mr Heseltine is an anonymous figure. His name-recognition among Tory MPs is already quite high; there is no need for further exposure.
Yet he seems determined to lurk around the political street-corner, saying, 'Want a good time, dearie?' to every passing Conservative backbencher. This is not going to improve his chances.
Mr Heseltine has put the pit-
closure question behind him - indeed, subsequent events have vindicated his strategy, though not his tactics. He has also overcome his health problem and regained his self-confidence, which was briefly dented by the heart attack. He looks as leonine as ever, ready to resume his role as the supreme performer at the party conference. The only thing that he cannot put behind him is his impetuosity.
For all that, if there were a change of leadership this year, Mr Heseltine would be the strong favourite. In any election, Tory MPs would be looking for a candidate who could turn the game round in a couple of overs. At present, there is only one such
It is certainly far too early for Michael Portillo. If the party were to sack the youngest Prime Minister this century, they would not replace him by an even younger, less experienced candidate. Michael Portillo would do well in any election, because many right-wingers would vote for him in order to fire a shot across Michael Heseltine's bow. Mr Portillo could even beat Kenneth Clarke into third place.
Michael Howard's name is also mentioned, along with Douglas Hurd's. They can both be discounted. Mr Hurd's day is over and Mr Howard's will never dawn. An able and likeable man, he suffers from one incurable disadvantage: his colleagues simply do not regard him as prime minister material.
The odds are still - just - against a leadership election, yet alone a change of leaders. Despite 1990, it is not easy to displace an incumbent prime minister. But Mr Major has made it clear that he does not intend to rely either on incumbency or on the defects of his possible opponents. He is determined, not merely to survive for negative reasons, but to resore his position in a positive way. Even in a fraught, conflict-strewn career, that is the biggest challenge he has ever faced. But he is more than capable of rising to it.
Bruce Anderson is political columnist of the 'Sunday Express'.
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