Make the challenge and clear the air

The shock treatment of a leadership campaign will concentrate Tory minds and renew Major's authority
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John Major's decision to seek a renewal of his authority to lead the Conservative Party is right. It is right in the interests of the party. For us to attempt to stagger on in such disarray over the summer and through to November would be to go from dreadful to catastrophic in our political fortunes.

Nor would it have made for good government. Gouverner c'est choisir, but a party obsessed with its own internal problems is not strongly placed to make rational choices.

It is also shrewd in terms of John Major's own interests. Labour Party accusations of dithering look peculiarly misplaced. He has seized the initiative, acted with impressive courage and wrong-footed those who design to get rid of him.

His opponents have a week to sort out their tactics, but taken by surprise it will be harder for them to organise. The likelihood is, however, that a stalking-horse candidate will put up against the prime minister. That should cause no resentment. If you have an election, by definition it is acceptable for contenders to enter the contest. Indeed, if the air is to be cleared - and being as fetid as it is, it needs to be - it will be better if the challenge is made. Major's critics have for the most part mumbled and whispered. It will be healthy for the case to be made openly and for the votes and the abstentions to be counted.

It is the abstentions that will matter in the ballot on Tuesday, 4 July. John Major will have to judge what is the level of abstentions beyond which he no longer commands sufficient confidence in the party. There will be much debate about what that level must be. It will be argued that with a small majority of Conservatives in the House of Commons, the threshold must be lower than when Margaret Thatcher was obliged to recognise that her MPs wanted a new leader. Maybe so, but it is not a matter that lends itself to exact computation. We shall have to see how the debate and mood develop over the next ten days. The party will have a sense of this when the time comes.

Why might MPs abstain on such a vote? Some will want to see which way the wind is blowing. Some will think their personal career prospects will be better with another leader. Some, perhaps, will be influenced to abstain by their constituency Conservative Associations. I don't think there will be many so pressurised. The party faithful are not called such for nothing. Their whole disposition is to be loyal to their leader - although they are capable of instantly, and genuinely, transferring their loyalty to a new leader.

The main reason for abstention will be because individual MPs take the view that with a different leader they will stand a better chance of salvaging their seats at the next election. The ironic aspect of this is that John Major is a very good electioneer. It was when he climbed on his soapbox halfway through the general election campaign in 1992 - when he really started to lead from the front - that the tone of the campaign came right. I see no reason to suppose that another leader would do better for us at a general election.

Generously and characteristically, John Major has promised his full support to anyone else who does become leader and prime minister. He is entitled to the same pledge from all his colleagues. But when we have elected our leader, and we have all resolved to behave better, will our problems be solved?

The Conservative Party hates being out of office. We know that electors greatly dislike the spectacle of a divided party. Back-biting and faction- fighting may make for good gossip and even be fascinating to observe, but they are also pretty repulsive. It's difficult to vote for a divided party because you don't know what you are voting for. The shock treatment of a leadership election offers the best chance of concentrating our minds on these realities. If the Conservative Party still retains its instinct for power we shall make sure that we do indeed invest our leader with renewed authority. Party loyalists in the constituencies will certainly demand that.

But can the accumulated personal discontents of MPs be sufficiently dispelled? A party that has been in government for 16 years accumulates a detritus of disappointment. There are those who are sacked. There are those who didn't get promoted, and those who have never found the right outlet for their energies. The problems of managing a party in parliament have become worse with the professionalisation of politics. The House of Commons is now populated almost entirely with career politicians. Front-bench jobs have proliferated, but there still aren't enough to satisfy more than a limited proportion of the sensitive vanities at Westminster. Each reshuffle upsets more people than it pleases. John Major, after only five years as prime minister, is vulnerable to this factor. Yet a belated access of realism may remind the disappointed that their disappointments can only get worse if they behave self-indulgently.

To what extent are the policy differences in the party irreconcilable? Real as some of the ideological divisions are in the Conservative Party, I do not believe that they present an insuperable obstacle to a unity sufficient for good government and for electoral purposes. There are not more than a handful of Conservative MPs who would rather lose the election than accommodate themselves to the policy on Europe which John Major and Douglas Hurd have staked out. We have our divisions, too, inevitably and legitimately, on social policy, but the party will follow a firm lead which corresponds to the mainstream sense of fairness of the British people. We could marginalise ourselves in xenophobic prejudice and ideological extravagance, leaving Tony Blair's Labour Party to occupy the middle ground of politics without challenge. But that way lies electoral annihilation, and the political self-preservation instinct of the Tory party will, I trust, keep us on the track of good sense and decency.

My guess, and hope, is that in the first round on July 4, John Major will win with a decisive majority.

t The writer is MP for Stratford-on-Avon.