Leading Article: Mr Major's day is done

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John Major's claim to the Tory leadership rests primarily on one quality - his capacity to unite the party. He has other virtues, notably his sober economic policy and a dogged pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland, but his value to the Tories is as a master of compromise. After the trauma of ousting Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party chose him, consummate coalition builder, as the man to heal its wounds. He proved his worth, leading the Tories to a general election triumph only 18 months after the party seemed set to fall apart.

Yet three years on the Prime Minister has lost his touch. Beset by unruly backbenchers and slyly subversive cabinet colleagues, there is now no realistic possibility that Mr Major can emerge from this leadership contest with enough authority and character to lead a disciplined and effective party. Briefly, after resigning the leadership, he acquired a new freshness and conviction, but he has failed during the short campaign to build on this.

Apart from a flurry of Commons sparkle last Thursday, when he again exposed Tony Blair's incapacity to twist the knife in an opponent's gut, he has failed to display either the character or the sense of direction his party needs. Common-sense Conservatism may be a perfectly reasonable slogan for the leader of the Conservative Party, but at a time when a gathering of his party's MPs would make a convocation of headless chickens look far-sighted, it simply will not do. Mr Major offers neither that thorough reworking of the Tory message needed to combat new Labour, nor the most compelling personality in the upper reaches of the Government. He looks increasingly overshadowed by cabinet ministers such as Michael Heseltine and Michael Portillo, who have not even declared themselves as candidates.

It is therefore time for the Tory party to be bold. The party may not be able to win, but there is nothing much to lose in dumping a loser. If Mr Major cannot manage to rally it in the current circumstances, against such an unconvincing candidate as John Redwood, he is unlikely to hold it together until the general election.

MPs should vote today for change, in the hope that the next stage of the process will yield a leader capable of presenting a fresh vision. Mr Redwood is not that man. He showed courage in challenging Mr Major, but instead of an innovative right-wing programme he has laid out a muddled manifesto of unaffordable tax cuts, unattainable economies in spending and a brand of anti-Europeanism which has only one merit, namely that it is dogmatically clear. There is also an authoritarian, anti-liberal streak in Mr Redwood, which the campaign has served to highlight rather than diminish.

The balance of probability must be that no Conservative leader can now generate a revival capable of overwhelming Mr Blair. But as they cast their votes today, Tory MPs will be dreaming of the cabinet coalition that might just construct itself around Mr Heseltine or Mr Portillo or, who knows, perhaps around some other leader to emerge from the swamps of this most gruelling of electoral processes.

It is desirable for the country that all our political parties should be inventive, well led and well organised. Mr Major is no longer up to the job. His time is up.