Leading Article: Fresh dangers await Mr Major

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The Independent Online
JOHN SMITH, the Labour leader, had a point when he said apropos of Norman Lamont's reported remarks about the Prime Minister: 'If they (the Tories) think so little of each other, why should anyone think anything of them?' When Mr Lamont describes John Major as 'weak and hopeless', it hurts because it rings at least partly true.

The gibes of an embittered former Chancellor would matter little if the Conservative Party were not still fundamentally as divided as at the time of the Maastricht debate. Lord Tebbit's television interview yesterday was a reminder of how the Europe issue festers on. Such divisions are in themselves nothing new: both the Conservative and Labour parties embrace a wide range of views. But they matter when a party's leadership is seen to be weak or unsure.

In Margaret Thatcher's long hegemony, the left of the Conservative Party was largely marginalised, with only its most robust and centrist members surviving. Divisions were overridden and, eventually, largely obscured. It was the right that ensured Mr Major's emergence as Mrs Thatcher's successor, with (ironically) Mr Lamont as campaign manager and king-maker.

Those same right-wingers and Europhobes soon came to feel betrayed by Mr Major's determination to push through the Maastricht treaty. Their respect thus undermined, they were quick to condemn any other signs of weakness in Mr Major's leadership.

In one of many attempts to unite the party and reassert his authority, Mr Major launched the ill-starred 'back to basics' campaign. Unsurprisingly, given the heavy overlap between right-wingery and Europhobia, it was given its most damaging moralising twists by representatives of those tendencies in the Cabinet. The havoc wrought by 'basics-gate' will live on, bringing accusations of hypocrisy when Tories of whatever stripe depart from mainstream standards of public and private morality. Any ministerial reshuffle will be no more than a temporary palliative.

For Mr Major the Europe issue remains the most dangerous, not least because it is so closely linked to feelings for Baroness Thatcher. The party's divisions on it are so deep and bitter that it is hard, even impossible, to imagine a platform for the June elections to the European parliament that will not bring disaster. However skilfully drafted, it is bound to reopen old wounds, especially if its tone is positive towards the European Union. If it is negative, Tory candidates will be obliged to campaign for institutions in which their party manifestly does not believe. No more than a handful would then be likely to be elected.

In May, a few weeks after the tax changes start to bite, there will be local elections. If the Conservatives fare disastrously in both, the party's survival instinct will reassert itself, and Mr Major will be asked to do the decent thing and depart. For all his streak of determination, it is difficult to see how he could resist such an invitation.