Is there a Tory future?

The way Major has treated his party by jumping clear in their moment of need shows the depth of his contempt
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John Major's decision to desert the bridge of the Tory ship, left holed and rudderless by the May Day election defeat, is a gross abdication of responsibility, a dereliction of duty, an act of staggering selfishness.

It is a measure of the disaster that has befallen the Conservatives that few seem to notice, even less care about, the way in which its leader has treated his party.

Yet Mr Major has set it on course for the rocks, lashed down the wheel, and jumped ship with gay abandon. Rats desert sinking ships; it is a convention of the sea that captains are last to leap off.

Yet here is a man who owes everything to the Conservative Party, a party that gave him one of the safest parliamentary seats in the land, an early front-bench apprenticeship, and the patronage of Margaret Thatcher.

Major undoubtedly had luck, and he had a cleverness that left brighter men standing in his shadow. There was also a chameleon-like modesty, an ability to blend, that made him the ideal successor to Thatcher when Michael Heseltine broke her grip on power in the 1990 Tory leadership coup.

John Major's election victory in 1992 confounded all those critics who carped about his lack of style and patronised him beyond endurance. He beat the odds, and the pundits, and won. In office, he did more than any other Prime Minister to try to solve the insoluble conundrum of Northern Ireland; he successfully negotiated the minefield of Europe and the splits and rifts it generated within his own party; and he reduced inflation to record lows.

He broke his word on taxes, humiliated himself and the country with the debacle over the exchange rate mechanism, and meddled so much with the National Health Service and the education system that he made them prime issues of voters' concern. But he was also Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and leader of the Conservative Party, for more than six years; no mean achievement for a Brixton boy.

During the election, Major said that he wanted to move the Conservative "revolution" into a new phase, in which people for whom life was a struggle began to share in the "finer things of life". He painted a picture in which Tony Blair threatened "a Disunited Kingdom drifting towards a United States of Europe".

The scale of defeat punctured the hope and the horror, at a stroke. But it also ended the struggle between those who had urged Major to stay on and see the party through its loss, and those who had advised him to quit at once, and return to a "real life".

The friends who had advised him to get out believe they had Major's best interests at heart. What good would it have served to stay on, they ask. Better to get a new leader quickly in place. The divisions that have broken out between the various contenders to the succession were ever-present in the party and, indeed, were one of the causes of defeat. If Major was unable to keep them from breaking out at the height of the election campaign, what chance had he got of keeping them down in the aftermath of defeat? Best let them get on with it.

Other friends argue that Major has done nothing more than Labour's James Callaghan in 1979, Michael Foot in 1983, or Neil Kinnock in 1992, when defeated leaders left their parties to their own devices in choosing a successor.

In fact, Foot knew that he was in effect handing the party on to Neil Kinnock; just as Neil Kinnock knew he was handing on to John Smith. The only appropriate parallel to what Major has just done is the Callaghan precedent, when there was no guarantee as to what the Parliamentary Labour Party would do, and it turned to Foot.

As Kenneth Clarke reminded Tory colleagues who might be tempted to back a "hard-line nationalist and anti-European" candidate to succeed Major, Labour's election of Foot "cleared the way for a generation of Conservative rule".

Major has left the party in the lurch, with no clue as to who will replace him. But after all they have done to him over the last six years, his friends argue, why should he care?

Enemies and rivals have stabbed him in the back, they have knee-capped him, tied his hands together, and expected him to fight an election against one of the most sophisticated political machines ever - devised by Peter Mandelson. The Conservatives, Major's friends add, have now got their just deserts.

No one would dispute that the warring Tory factions have been asking for this mess. They do, indeed, deserve it. But what of the thousands upon thousands of loyal, decent, hard-working activists up and down the country who have given heart and soul to the Conservative Party? What about the many, many people who have slogged their guts out, canvassing and arguing and persuading reluctant and hostile supporters to go out and vote? Not to mention the millions of people who did just that - those who went out and voted not so much for the Conservative Party as for that nice, lovely man, John Major.

Do they deserve this anarchy, this half-baked leadership contest for a party that has not yet had a chance to grieve for its loss? Not at all. Yet such is the depth of Major's gratitude, that he has thrown them to the wolves, like so much rancid mutton.

There are 164 Conservative MPs in today's House of Commons. Many of the newcomers have been around long enough to know the difference between William Hague and Michael Howard, Peter Lilley and Kenneth Clarke. But is it really right that the new leader of the Conservative Party should be elected so precipitately by so few?

What does it do for the morale of an already demoralised party to know that they have no say whatsoever in the choice of the man, and it is a man, who is to lead them into the new millennium? Of course soundings will be taken. And the soundings will then be ignored in the privacy of a secret ballot.

All that lies at the door of John Major, who could so easily have decided to see the party through its mourning, who could so easily have initiated a review of the leadership election rules, who could so easily have seen the party through to safe harbour. He prefers to watch cricket instead.

If there was one reason why the Conservative Party adored Alec Douglas- Home it was because he selflessly agreed to serve under Edward Heath, as shadow Foreign Secretary, after Heath became the party's first elected leader in 1965.

Home had stayed on after the defeat of October 1964, seeing in the new leadership election process - which still exists today - and remaining for nine months before leaving the coast clear for Heath's election.

He then volunteered to lend his weight and experience to the shadow cabinet and went on to serve as Foreign Secretary for the duration of the 1970- 74 Heath government.

Today's shadow cabinet is so devoid of weight and experience that Major is serving as Leader of the Opposition, shadow Foreign Secretary and shadow Defence Secretary.

But Major's friends say that as soon as a new leader is elected, he will be off. We will not see him for dust. There is no question of him offering his services to the new leader; he will have done his bit, and that will be that.

Anyone who seeks gratitude in politics is a fool. But Major must truly despise his party to treat it with such contempt.

During the election, one of Labour's campaign themes was the weakness of Major's leadership. They were right. He could not lead a horse to water, but he is now letting the Conservative Party wander off into the wilderness.