Leading Article: The smack of firm government

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JOHN MAJOR has not waited until the Conservative conference in Brighton before taking up arms against his sea of troubles. The Prime Minister indicated on Thursday that he intends to re-assert authority over the party and the Government, and signalled how he plans to do so. The Maastricht treaty legislation will return to the House of Commons by Christmas, or as soon as possible thereafter. Before that, soon after Parliament reassembles next month, there will be a debate on the principle of the treaty, a deliberate challenge to Tory dissidents.

After a period of uncertainty, the Prime Minister has finally accepted the neccessity, indeed the inevitability, of confronting potential rebels as directly and as rapidly as possible with the full power of the party machine and the Whips' office. There is no longer any intention of placating the sceptics and the anti-Europeans on Commons back benches or in the Lords by waiting to see whether the Danes have second thoughts.

Mr Major is prepared to postpone consideration of a return to the exchange rate mechanism. But even this concession is minimal. As the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, made clear in a thoughtful but robust and uncompromisingly pro-European speeech to the European Policy Forum on Thursday, the issue eventually will have to be addressed, positively. Otherwise this country is likely to be marginalised, with adverse effects on the City and on Britain's invisible exports.

Given this approach, Norman Lamont's immediate future looks to be assured. As long as he sticks firmly to the Cabinet line, he should stay on as Chancellor of the Exchequer for the present. But his months (though not his days) are numbered. He faces twin credibility problems. They concern interim monetary policy and the longer-term need to return to the ERM. Mr Lamont should go in the fullness of time - to be replaced by John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport. He is sound on Europe without being fanatical and his emollience would help ease the path back into the ERM. He has no enemies within the party but is not a potential rival for the prime ministership. A former merchant banker and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he understands monetary policy and is technically qualified for the post.

An historic battle has thus been joined. The stakes are high. Neither Mr Major nor his party will be the same at the end of the Parliamentary campaign. He will either emerge as a much diminished figure whose days as an effective Prime Minister are numbered, or his status will have been greatly enhanced. He will have become a figure of authority on the European stage as well as domestically.

The odds on the latter outcome must be good. With the benefit of hindsight, Margaret Thatcher, Cecil Parkinson, Norman Tebbit and Nicholas Ridley must feel that they departed prematurely to the House of Lords. Having done so, the anti-European banner will be borne in the Commons by people of the standing of Teddy Taylor, William Cash and Richard Shepherd. They are doughty and obssessive fighters but they are not prime ministerial material. The rebels can offer neither an alternative prime minister nor a unifying and credible alternative policy. They will be fighting a powerful party machine and a Whips office both of which are firmly under Mr Major's control.

Mr Major's first task will be to get through next week's conference. The Government will come under conflicting pressures from those of Europhobic inclination and those who want to ensure that the Prime Minister, having signalled firmness of intent, does not back off. Almost all delegates will represent constituencies in which the Conservative Party's natural supporters have taken considerable punishment. Many will have suffered personal loss of income, occupation or business as a result of Government policies - or their failure. They will want to know why they are bleeding, whether their sacrifices have been in vain, how long the suffering will continue and how Mr Major intends to lift them out of their slough of despont.

Even so it is by no means inevitable that the predicated ruptions will to take place. At the end of a fairly good week for Labour, Margaret Beckett, the deputy leader, said that the Conservative Party would 'fall apart' in the course of its conference. This is, wildly hyperbolic. The Conservative Party has an instinctive will to unity and it responds well to firm management. Mr Major and his party could both be looking stronger by the end of next week.