Leading Article: That sinking feeling

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The Independent Online
John Major has always had his critics in the Conservative Party at Westminster. But in the past few days, there has been a fundamental shift in perceptions. Few people can now conceive of any circumstances in which Mr Major could win the next general election, and many Conservative MPs fear not merely the Opposition benches but the loss of their seats. Tony Marlow and John Carlisle are merely expressing publicly the sort of opinions that are voiced privately by a significant and growing number of Tory backbenchers who doubt whether the Prime Minister can or should last the year.

This week has, then, seen a change in the mood of the Conservative Party analagous to the change in attitude towards Margaret Thatcher in the months before her downfall in 1990. That earlier mood swing had been provoked in part by the sense of anxiety, fury almost, about Mrs Thatcher's increasingly strident anti-Europeanism. But the crucial factor in her downfall was the conviction among Tories that they simply could not win the forthcoming general election with the poll tax in place - and that Mrs Thatcher would not abandon it at any price. She therefore had to go.

The immediate cause of this latest slump of confidence in Mr Major is the result of the inept manner in which he inflated the importance of the battle over the size of the blocking vote in the European Union's decision-making process, and then accepted a compromise that is little more than a fig-leaf. He left himself with no reasonable options. But Europe is no longer the issue; Mr Major is the issue. There is a sense of incompetent political management about his administration that he will find very hard to shake off.

Six months ago it was possible to argue that the Prime Minister had nowhere to go but up. Maastricht was behind him and a process of healing seemed possible. The economy was picking up and the 'feel- good factor' might be expected to come into play. Most crucially, the Prime Minister's most bitter critics were from the right of the party, yet his most convincing successor was a man of the left, and of Europe, Kenneth Clarke.

This is no longer the case. Europe is still very much on the party agenda and Mr Major has demonstrated that he is as bad as ever

at handling it. The economic upswing is not going to be spectacular enough to engender easy popular optimism. Mr Clarke's standing has declined, while that of Michael Heseltine, restored to health and wisely pledging eternal loyalty to Mr Major, has risen.

After walking out of Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet, Mr Heseltine demonstrated fidelity to his party, great energy, surprising self-discipline and, when the time came, a ferocious will to win. And yet, as the man who undermined Mrs Thatcher, he was a divisive figure. Such is the nature of politics that Mr Heseltine now appears to many Tory MPs to offer not only a new vigour and sense of excitement, but also the prospect of unity.