Life of the party, but not the soul

'Members shall on no account refer to one another as Bunnyrabbit'
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As, in a hundred dappled back gardens and around innumerable cluttered breakfast tables, the Conservative Party wrestles with its dilemma this weekend, there should be no silly stuff about "the struggle for the soul of the party". You might as well talk about the struggle for the soul of a Vauxhall Corsa. Or the soul of the National Westminster Bank. Or of Rupert Murdoch. No, what the Tory party has is something more down- to-earth and useful. It has a First Purpose.

The ancient rulebook of British Conservativism contains many crossings- out and splashes of Tipp-Ex. "Members shall wear cavalry twills while leisured" - gone. "Members shall not take their own political views too seriously" - almost illegible now, and defaced with the biro'd word "rubbish" in the handwriting of Bill Cash. "Members shall on no account refer to one another as Bunnyrabbit" - long gone. But the party's First Purpose has so far remained undefaced and unaltered, and it has nothing to do with taxation, parliamentary sovereignty or personal comportment. It is simply this: "Members shall at all times remember that the purpose of the Conservative Party is to hold office, under any leader and under all circumstances. Members overawed by the heroic simplicity of this First Purpose are hereby invited to join the Liberal Party or similar."

The question now is not whether the First Purpose is still first. The choice for Conservative MPs is not simply Major or Redwood. It is about the risks of the party falling from power, and even splitting. In personal terms, this means that right-wingers are perplexed as to whether trying to seize the party now is do-able. For the left and the uncommitted, the question is whether the chance of getting Heseltine, the still-glorious Joan Collins of contemporary Conservatism, is worth the risk of a takeover by the right. Would it be Hezza's last huzza, or the Portillo putsch?

For traditional Conservatives, there should be no choice here at all. They fear Portillo even more than they want Heseltine. For them a really big Major victory would be the safe outcome. At Prime Minister's Questions on Thursday he showed the party what he can do when he lets himself go. He may have been demob happy; but his tolerant and humorous treatment of Redwood shows his instinct for coalition politics remains as acute as ever. If Major is free of threats to his position on Tuesday, logic would suggest more of the same in the months ahead. With all that weight of rumour and uncertainty suddenly lifted from his shoulders, he could hardly avoid enjoying a revival of self-confidence and authority.

This is the significance of the decision not to allow a further contest in November. It makes things simpler. If the Tory right is passionately concerned to kill off British involvement in monetary union, it will have to get Major on Tuesday. It is now or never. If he wins well, he has the right boxed in for the first time since becoming leader. The ambush in the rose garden would have paid off, and British politics would feel very different as a result.

So although Major has done himself good over the past 48 hours, the consequences of his success are unpredictable. Many MPs on the centre and left will conclude that if he is winning, he had better win good and act accordingly. But others, principally on the right, will react just the opposite way. They will fear that a thumping Major victory, achieved on the back of his reassuring message to the pro-Europeans, will set back their cause (as distinct from their party) for years. So they will decide to abstain or vote for Redwood to avoid him being humiliated. And votes do not come in different strengths. Enough half-hearted "we'd better stop a Major landslide" votes for Redwood, and you have a full-hearted Redwood triumph.

A tricky business. Staring into these cross-currents, these rip-tides and sudden flurries, not even the government whips really know which way this complex tactical game is flowing. As Conservative MPs sit slumped in their deckchairs, the wiser ones avoiding all polls, interviews, importunate party workers and newspaper speculation, we must leave them to their impossible guessing game.

What is clear is that below the questions of this personality or that, is the big divide, as the left rallies to Major, and the right, putting ideology first, doesn't. This leads towards the possibility of an eventual split - something that has been discussed so often that there is a danger of becoming blase about it.

Up to now we have happily managed without an English nationalist party of any significance. The mix of factions and interests that makes up the Conservative Party, uneasily mingling authoritarian patriots and anti- statist libertarians, Christian Democrats and semi-fascists, has sublimated many of those darker political instincts which, on the Continent, have had their own leaders and parties. In the same way the Labour coalition has meant that Britain, unlike France and Italy, has never had to confront the possibility of a post-war Communist government.

With the end of the Cold War and the new challenges thrown up by the European Union, it is no longer clear that the Conservative coalition can mute these differences under its ancient First Purpose of office-at- all-costs. John Major is coalition man, a moderate moderniser; but it is starting to look as if his natural successor in British politics is Tony Blair. Meanwhile, for the first time in the post-war period, there are a considerable number of Tory MPs wandering about at large saying that there are more important things than winning elections.

In the end, they are right. But they cannot have both the things that they have had up to now. They cannot have a potent Conservative Party able to hold together and keep winning elections, and a divisive nationalist crusade against Europe. They cannot have two First Purposes.

This weekend, under the dapple of the apple-trees, with the soporific clonk-clonk of Wimbledon in the background, it may seem that they are sitting there deciding who the next prime minister should be. But this is an illusion; their choice is a lot more important than that.