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Leading Article: Heseltine recognises a thankless task

THE CHAIRMANSHIP of the Conservative Party is conventionally regarded as a poisoned chalice, and there is a sense in which this judgement is beyond question. Since the Second World War there have been 19 Tory party chairmen, and (John Major please note) no chairwomen. At least seven of the more successful - Hailsham, Butler, Macleod, Whitelaw, Parkinson, Tebbit, and Patten - could have hoped to lead their party. None went on to do so.

But it would be perverse to blame either the job or their performances in Central Office for the failure of such people to reach the summit. Death, domestic difficulties and the sheer flood of political events swept them aside. Why is it, then, that Tory politicians such as Michael Heseltine shiver when it is suggested that the leader's fickle finger might point at them? In part it is because the job is commonly misdescribed. Sir Norman Fowler is known, officially, as Chairman of the Party Organisation (note that final, diminishing word). But even that is to exaggerate. Sir Norman's role is similar to that of the managing director in a chaotic company with, on the one hand, autonomous regional offices and, on the other, a powerful executive chairman.

John Major, as leader, fills this latter role. Sir Norman holds office at his leader's sufferance, and acts at his bidding. Sir Norman will depart, immediately and without question, when Mr Major so decides. And when he does leave, it will be without the compensation of stock options, golden handshakes, non-executive directorships or any of the other little sweeteners that industrialists have come to expect. The most the departing one can expect is a life peerage, which in effect excludes him from future participation in the prime ministerial race.

As if this were not bad enough, the chairmanship of the party organisation is one of those jobs in which you cannot win.

If things go wrong, it is the chairman's fault. If they go right, the leader takes the praise. Consider the 1992 general election. Mr Major is widely credited with having won it against the odds. Had the Tories lost, however, it is a safe enough bet that inept chairmanship by Chris Patten would have been blamed. The chalice may not be poisoned, but Mr Heseltine is wise to refuse to sip from it.