LEADING ARTCICLE : John Major's last chance saloon

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The Independent Online
It took just 15 minutes from the end of the Prime Minister's al fresco press conference yesterday for the first Tory loyalist to turn up in a BBC radio studio. Soon the airwaves were stickily vibrant with the sound of Tories pouring oil on oily waters. Mr Major's gamble was looking good.

The Prime Minister's loss of patience with the antics of his own side is understandable. Nothing that he has been able to do or say on Europe (short of sacking his Chancellor and his Foreign Secretary) has pacified the Conservatives' anti-Europe tendency. In fact every time that he has trimmed to take account of their Little Englandism, they have found reason to widen the scope of their criticism and dissatisfaction. With the pro- Europeans, led by the Chancellor, maintaining an increasingly anxious and watchful eye on the other side of the fence, the Prime Minister is caught between immovable objects. The party has looked ever more ungovernable.

Yesterday, before Mr Major's coup de theatre, the talk was of the ultimatum that the backbench 1922 Committee was preparing for the Prime Minister. It wanted lower taxes, lower public expenditure, more handouts for homeowners and a really, really big reshuffle. Sir Marcus Fox, its chairman, even hinted in an interview that perhaps Douglas Hurd had overstayed his welcome. Sir Marcus's committee fully reflected the strange mixture of fatigue, defiance, cowardice and expediency that increasingly characterises the Tory back benches. This mood was giving rise to weekly bursts of "will he, won't she?" speculation about every conceivable combination of stalking horse and candidate. It had to be stopped.

John Major's gamble will almost certainly work. In the first place it looks leaderly, which always impresses MPs. And the Little Englanders will not have the usual July mad months to crystallise disaffection and find a credible stalking horse. So Major will win and then claim that this victory gives him enhanced legitimacy in developing his own approach at his own pace. The Conservative Party will emerge, for a time at least, cleansed and unified.

But what about the country? Are we well served by the continuation in office of the Prime Minister? With almost two years to go before a general election must be called, it is still possible that, bolstered by a handsome victory in the leadership contest, Mr Major can recover political momentum. There is little doubt, however, that the present abject state of the party is not simply a consequence of intractable divisions over Europe, it is also a function of John Major's weak leadership. It is difficult to imagine that two further years with him at the helm would lead to anything other than further rancour and a massive defeat at the next election. This is the case for a leadership election and the return of a stronger figure: Michael Heseltine or Kenneth Clarke.

But this is to present the equation simply in terms of the Conservative Party. Until last year no alternative government was on hand. Today there is a strong feeling among voters that between them, together or separately, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown could contrive a new government for Britain. Inadvertently Sir Marcus Fox yesterday suggested that perhaps they should be given the chance. In an interview recorded before Mr Major's rose garden rendezvous, Sir Marcus said this: "We all have a finite time as a minister. There are all sorts of able people who are just dying for the opportunity. So we don't want just a shuffling about of jobs; people moving from one to the other." Quite so. What the country really needs is a general election rather than yet another Tory leadership contest.

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