Yesterday was one of those days which gives the lie to the argument that the House of Commons no longer matters. Its significance was a sniff in the air, a change of mood. As the Prime Minister tried, perfectly reasonably and perfectly coolly, and showing his usual command of the detail, to respond to a series of sceptical questions about the European voting compromise, there was an ominous silence, a grim, folded-arms passivity on the Tory benches behind him.
Then Tony Marlow, regarded by mainstream Conservatives as being beyond the pale, openly told Mr Major he was no good and should go. There was the predictable noise of offence being taken on the Conservative side of the House. But it was low and muted, a mild susurration in the backwoods rather than an outraged gust of anger. Nor, when Mr Major quite sharply jabbed back at a man he detests, was there much relief. Nobody follows Mr Marlow, though he was among the first publicly to demand that Margaret Thatcher go. But the social standing of the person who says the emperor is nude is hardly the point.
One eminent backbencher said afterwards: 'It was terribly embarrassing. What Marlow said was embarrassing. The Prime Minister's reply was embarrassing. And the reaction was embarrassing.' Another said: 'Tomorrow's headline must be 'Naked Emperor to Soldier On.' '
Of the middle-roader Tory MPs I spoke to during the evening, the majority felt that Mr Major's position was slipping beyond the point where it could be retrieved. Gruff and genuinely sad expressions like 'not up to it' and 'I'm sorry - I voted for the guy' were abundant. Earlier, in the chamber, the party had looked as if it had had the stuffing knocked out of it by the latest twists of rhetoric and compromise. At one point it seemed as though the government side was going to run out of questions to ask during Prime Minister's Question Time - an unheard-of thing. One senior MP who had witnessed the Suez debates compared the mood with that.
Discussions have been going on among different factions of Conservative MPs about potential replacements and about the mechanism for a change of leader. The assumption is that Mr Major will not, under any circumstances, stand down willingly and that a contest would have to be forced. Unlike Margaret Thatcher he would probably fight on beyond a poor first-ballot result and force cabinet colleagues to stand against him. That would take some nerve. It is very early days. We still have months of manoeuvring, elections and unpredictable events to come. But these details of a challenge are being openly talked about already. And in those discussions, ministers have been involved, though not cabinet ministers.
Kenneth Clarke, who only a few months ago seemed unchallengable as the crown prince, has been losing ground fast to Mr Heseltine. A series of influential figures on the right of the party have been quietly canvassing their friends on Mr Heseltine's behalf, and partisans of Michael Portillo, the darling of the right, are already peeling off into the Heseltine camp.
The President of the Board of Trade has been impeccably, even flauntingly, loyal - which is precisely the right attitude for someone in his position. But his case is being made for him across the spectrum of Tory politics. One argument is that the centre of gravity in the party is moving on the European issue to embrace a policy that could be described as British Gaullism. But for that, you require a British de Gaulle. And there is only one contender for that job. More generally, middle-of- the-road MPs are saying that after 15 years of power, the Conservative movement is tired, demoralised and ragged, and requires a giant shot of adrenalin if it is to win a fifth victory. A Heseltine premiership carries the prospect of an exhilarating, dangerous cavalry charge that could transform the mood. The Labour leadership views the possibility with trepidation.
Those are the arguments flowing round the corridors and parliamentary offices. The Clarke camp, which had attracted the strong interest of right-wing dissidents last summer when Mr Heseltine was out of action after his heart attack, has kept quiet. But if the Chancellor assumes that Mr Heseltine is damaging his standing by showing his hand too openly, he may be making a serious tactical mistake: there is a yearning for hope in the party that precludes worry about the niceties. One former cabinet minister once criticised Mr Heseltine as 'rather too much the thwack of crop upon leather'. To many Tories these days it seems an appealing thought.
What, finally, about the loyalist Major camp? There are people still ready to work hard for him and there are various wheezes to make life easier. The appointment of a tough press officer, Christopher Meyer, has helped a little. The latest suggestion is that the equally tough and respected Health Minister, Brian Mawhinney, should be made Downing Street's boot-boy in chief, a partisan fighting for Mr Major on the rebellious back benches. Then there is the dilemma of the summer reshuffle. Should Mr Major ruthlessly kick out half a dozen cabinet ministers who have failed to live up to expectations, and try to remodel his government that way - or would that merely create another rebellious group on the back benches and increase the likelihood of a putsch in the autumn?
Betting is a fools' game. But if you are that kind of fool, lay a spare tenner on the President.
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