Major should not expect self-denial from the suits: Political Commentary

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The Independent Online
QUITE the most arresting remark in the aftermath of the local elections came from Mrs Teresa Gorman. She was speaking on the Today programme, deploring the possibility of any challenge to Mr John Major in the autumn. Finding Mr Michael Heseltine's behaviour particularly reprehensible, she accused him of 'putting his puddings about for treacle again'. Perhaps the 'puddings' here referred to are Dr Keith Hampson and Colonel Michael Mates. Or, again, perhaps not. The phrase remains obscure. James Joyce would not, I feel, have dared include it even in Finnegans Wake. This sort of thing is much better left to Mrs Edwina Currie.

Still, we get the general drift. Mrs Gorman is against a contest in the autumn, and believes that Mr Heseltine is not doing enough either to exclude himself from contention or to safeguard the Prime Minister's position. But really all Mr Heseltine is doing is observing the passing scene with a small smile on his lips. He is not responsible for the actions of Dr Hampson and Colonel Mates, who are not children to be ordered about, or dogs to be called off. Can he be blamed? Mrs Gorman evidently thinks he can. Several Conservatives take the same view.

Others take a similar view of Mr Michael Portillo's activities. In politics, making a speech is the most compelling form of activity of all. Mr Heseltine has not made many lately or, if he has, they have eluded our industrious news editors.

Mr Portillo, by contrast, has made at least three, of varying quality. The one which he made to the Southampton students and subsequently fibbed about - saying that the offending words were off-the-cuff, whereas in fact he had uttered them in more or less the same form at a similar gathering some weeks previously - struck me as exhibiting signs of derangement. The statement that educational qualifications in Europe are acquired corruptly is so absurd as to be a cause of concern for the speaker.

Maybe we should not be too severe. Mr Portillo was probably trying to make a joke. At heart he is a good boy. When my friend and his tutor, Mr Maurice Cowling, said on his departure from Peterhouse, Cambridge, that he would have a bright future in middle management, he was probably being too depreciatory. Or perhaps Mr Cowling also was having a little joke.

The trouble with Mr Portillo is not that he has been promoted to the Cabinet too young but that he has been made the standard-bearer of a group too soon. Mr Michael Howard is too slippery and considered to be not altogether sound on Europe. He is the modern equivalent of another plausible barrister and Conservative Home Secretary, Sir John Simon: industrious, pleasant, anxious to be liked but, somehow, never quite trusted. Mr Peter Lilley and Mr John Redwood are clearly invaders from outer space, different galaxies maybe, but remote parts of the universe none the less. Those who want to keep Europe at a comparable galactic distance, who believe that Lady Thatcher's revolution must be continued in perpetuity and who, additionally, feel the pains of guilt about her departure have turned to Mr Portillo because there is no one else.

What is extraordinary is not so much that this elbowing for position is going on as that the exercise is being conducted so publicly. For last week Mr Kenneth Clarke made a speech as well. In the past few months, Clarkes have been falling on the Exchange. This was his attempt to impress the markets. His attitude may be summarised as 'Onward from Butler'. There are no signs of trimming to the right, whether over Europe or more generally, such as Mr Heseltine has exhibited.

Mr John Carlisle has already announced that he is going to stand against Mr Major if no one else will. He announces this about once a month. First, however, 34 members have to requisition an election by writing separately to Sir Marcus Fox, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee. This is 10 per cent of the parliamentary party, the proportion necessary for an election to be called. There are now 333 Conservative MPs. I calculate 10 per cent as 33, but the Conservatives evidently believe in a crude rounding-up. As far as I can see, a requisition - which was the only substantial change made after the fall of Lady Thatcher - ensures an election but does not guarantee candidates to contest it.

'I think it would be a jolly good thing if we had an election, Marcus.'

'Who's your man, then, Norman?'

'Dunno. Come to that later.'

Presumably the theory is that the 34 letter-writers would have one or more persons in mind. This change apart, the old system remains in its essentials undisturbed. Its most important characteristic is that there are really two separate elections: a first ballot and a second. The first ballot determines whether the party in the Commons want their leader to stay, the second who is to succeed him.

The conditions for success in the first ballot remain as stringent as they were in 1990. To be elected or re-elected leader, the successful candidate must obtain an absolute majority of those voting together with a 'surcharge' of 15 per cent of those qualified to vote. These are separate criteria which must be satisfied: the winner must have, first, an absolute majority of those voting and, second, a margin over his nearest rival of 15 per cent of those qualified to vote.

In November 1990 Lady Thatcher satisfied the first condition but not the second. With 204 votes, she was 17 over an absolute majority. But she was four short of the surcharge, which came to 56. We can amuse ourselves today with some comparable sums. Mr Major needs 167 votes to secure an absolute majority, assuming that the Conservatives fail to hold Eastleigh, that Mr Rupert Allason (who is currently not in receipt of the Whip) retains his franchise and that everybody votes. But he also needs a margin of 50, or 15 per cent of 333, over his nearest rival.

It is reliably reported that Mr Major intends to stand and fight. 'Sod off, suits': that will be his message if he is waited upon by any grave deputation. No doubt this is a plausible approach up to and including the first ballot. Though there has been some speculation about a Portillo resignation, ostensibly over Europe, it is not very likely to happen. We can assume that, on the first ballot, the Cabinet would stand with Mr Major.

If he had a similar result to Lady Thatcher's in 1990, he would (he now says) go on into the second ballot, as she was persuaded not to do. The suits would have no effect on his resolve. This is all very well, but in such circumstances Mr Heseltine, Mr Clarke and, possibly, Mr Portillo might consider their period of self-denial to be at an end. In 1990 Mr Major and Mr Douglas Hurd would have stayed out of the contest if Lady Thatcher had (unwisely, in their view) gone into the second ballot against Mr Heseltine. Mr Major would be rash to assume that his and Mr Hurd's ambitious successors today would do likewise.