Leading Article: From reptile to Newt

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You have seen the person hundreds of times before, but never taken much notice. Apathetically, you construct an entire personality on the flimsiest of evidence. Suddenly the cipher fills out and takes on a personality. So John Redwood - reputed to be a reptilian, calculating swot - turned out yesterday to be a humorous, slightly gauche improviser. His bid for power is revealed not to be a sinister plot, but the result of honest exasperation.

Not that you can believe everything he says. It is hard to accept that Mr Redwood's primary quarrel with John Major is, as he claims, crossness over the calling of the leadership battle. If Mr Major "turned a soap opera into a crisis", Mr Redwood is busy transforming a crisis into a disaster. And he is having great fun doing it. But it seems to be true that what he saw as Mr Major's maladroitness last Thursday was the final straw for a man already at odds with his leader's position on Europe and his capacity to regenerate the Conservative project.

The Major camp quickly hit back. One Major-man anonymously referred to the assembled supporters of the Redwood campaign as "Ward number eight at Broadmoor". And you could see what he meant. There was a tousled and bleary Norman Lamont, looking like a dissolute badger, Tony Marlow in his bounder's striped blazer, and Teresa Gorman once more attired in something the colour of an Opal Fruit. This could easily be dismissed as a gathering of the Euro-obsessives; the kind of people who see Kohl in every scuttle and who fear that relaxing border controls will lead to a spread of VD. According to this dismissive view, they may represent large sections of the ageing and generationally xenophobic Tory Party, but they are out of tune with modern realities and modern thought.

Nothing could be more dangerous than the assumption of pro-Europeans that history is somehow on their side. That has self-evidently not been true since Britain made a forced exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. A lack of confidence in the practicalities of integration has been growing. The right is increasingly driven by a conviction - reaching into almost every aspect of intellectual life - that the movement to further European integration is a profound mistake which collides with Britain's history, traditions and interests. Their historians believe it conflicts with how nations work and their philosophers that it dilutes national community. And they are sure that - given time - the people of Britain will see it their way.

Perhaps they will. One of the most worrying aspects about the political debate in Britain is its failure so far to get comprehensively to grips with the country's problems. The Government has patently run out of steam and for some time has been going through the motions of administration. It is a spent force. But we still do not know whether Tony Blair's Labour Party is sufficiently imaginative and radical to run with new ideas, or whether it will shut up intellectual shop after an election and luxuriate in the warm glow of power. It is certainly giving a good impression of doing that now.

If this reading of the political scene is right, then the Redwoods (and Portillos) may well inherit the earth. Their analysis of the nation's unsolved problems will point to overweening, remote bureaucracies and over-large government, nationally and in Europe; a critique that chimes in with popular versions of this country's history and national personality. The ground would be prepared for the kind of popular revolt that last year propelled a previously unknown congressman to prominence in the United States. Today we all know Newt Gingrich.