Mr Major astonishes the right with his ingratitude proves sharper than traitors' knives

Political Commentary
Click to follow
"WE SHALL astonish them with our ingratitude," the prime minister of the Austrian empire said in 1849. He was referring to the Hungarians. It might just as well have been Mr John Major talking about the Tory right. That, at any rate, is the way they view matters. They are certainly disappointed. Many of them feel deceived. Some go on to speak of sharp practice by the Prime Minister.

He had misleadingly claimed to lead the party from a centre-right position. He had promised that there would be "no recriminations" after Tuesday's ballot. For some reason an absence of recriminations was believed to mean the same as an abundance of jobs for the boys. Then, after Mr John Redwood had won 89 votes, the period of self-delusion was briefly extended. The strength of the right would have to be recognised by Mr Major in his new appointments.

Mr Redwood might be recalled to the Cabinet. Mr Michael Portillo, forgiven for installing those telephone lines, could be promoted. Above all, the Eurocautious Mr Michael Howard would go to the Foreign Office in place of the Europhilic Mr Douglas Hurd. It is worth pointing out that Mr Howard's prospective appointment was not simply a Europhobic conceit. It was widely forecast in the newspapers and on television.

But see what happened. Mr Major did not show the slightest gratitude to the right. Why on earth should he have done? Not only had they brought the contest about through their antics. They had also refused to allow him to fight it on his own terms.

For he had not expected to contest an election at all. He and his advisers were among those - a distinguished company, including Cabinet ministers, political editors and television broadcasters - who had failed to understand the rules. They erroneously believed that 33 supporters were necessary for a challenge. But Mr Major had himself created the vacancy. He had done so for selfish reasons, certainly improperly and maybe unconstitutionally. Any challenger needed only a proposer and a seconder. That was his first miscalculation.

His second miscalculation was to assume that the Cabinet would stand firm and that he would be faced by Mr Norman Lamont or some even more insignificant person. Indeed, he made the mendacious claim that his resignation had the support of his colleagues. In fact they were not told, even when they were meeting on the Thursday morning before the afternoon's al fresco press conference. This omission was one of the reasons which impelled Mr Redwood to stand. He was particularly piqued because Mr Major's intentions were communicated to him by Mr Howard.

There is a paradoxical sense, however, in which Mr Major should indeed be grateful to Mr Redwood. As a more weighty opponent than Mr Lamont, he allowed the Prime Minister to claim a famous victory. If anyone had told me three weeks ago that a Conservative prime minister could survive with a third of his party demonstrably against him, I should have viewed the claim with scepticism. Before Mr Major's 218 votes were announced, the papers took the same view. As Mr Andrew Marr reminds us in the current Spectator, the Times thought 210-220 "no man's land"; the Guardian considered 210-230 "touch and go"; the Daily Telegraph described 200-230 as "a grey area"; while the Evening Standard said that under 221 would put Mr Major in "massive danger".

Not merely did Mr Major survive a vote of 218. It was acclaimed as the most conclusive triumph in modern political history. The whole episode illustrates the truth that, in politics today, he who gets to the microphone first, wins.

Accordingly Mr Redwood not only provided Mr Major with a triumph but also enabled him to shift the balance of the Government away from the right. There is no place in it for Mr Redwood. Mr Portillo has been sent to Defence, where he will find that patriotic noises cost taxpayers' money. Mr Jonathan Aitken, the noted churchwarden, has resigned, ostensibly to supervise his libel actions: though that is a step which, according to ministerial practice, he should have taken when he began those actions. His replacement, Mr William Waldegrave, is a bit of a wet.

Mr Waldegrave's appointment, by the way, provides evidence that the Prime Minister intends to take on Lord Justice Scott. But after the Littleborough by-election there will be an even smaller majority. And after the reconstitution of the Government there will be an even more embittered one. We shall see whether challenging the learned judge (as Harold Wilson did Lord Radcliffe over the D-Notice affair) will prove a wise course.

Virtually the only consolation prizes which the right have been given are Mr Michael Forsyth at the Scottish Office and, possibly, Mr William Hague at the Welsh Office. I write "possibly" because little is known of his political views. After he had appeared as a child prodigy at the 1977 conference Lord St John of Fawsley remarked: "Where do they pick them up? Euston Station?"

By contrast, Mr Michael Heseltine and his friends have had riches heaped upon them. There has certainly been no ingratitude here, though there is still no place for his oldest allies, Dr Keith Hampson and Sir Peter Tapsell; while another chum, Colonel Michael Mates, presents difficulties of his own. But the three chief ministers are now self-confessed Europhiles. Mr Kenneth Clarke's views are familiar to us all. Mr Malcolm Rifkind's recent pronouncements on national independence do not fool anybody. Come out from behind those old bound volumes of Hansard, Malcolm! We know you. As for Mr Heseltine, I once read a whole book of his entitled The Challenge of Europe.

Among Mr Heseltine's new responsibilities is the co-ordination of the Government's response to Lord Nolan's recommendations and - a more serious matter, as I have already indicated - to Lord Justice Scott's report. Inevitably, most of the attention has been given to his appointment as Deputy Prime Minister. This is a position which, as we are regularly informed by Lord St John, is unknown to the constitution. Yet it is one to which politicians are appointed from time to time, some for political, others for practical, reasons.

CR Attlee belonged to the latter group, for someone had to be in charge of the home front during the war. RA Butler was appointed by Harold Macmillan in 1962 from a variety of motives, but the job did not do him much good. Lady Thatcher writes in her memoirs that Lord Whitelaw "had almost made [the title] his own because of his stature and seniority", whatever that is supposed to mean: for in fact Lord Whitelaw neither possessed nor claimed the title in question. It was, however, awarded to Lord Howe at his own insistence after he was sacked from the Foreign Office and deprived of his country house.

Altogether the precedents for deputy prime ministers are not encouraging to Mr Heseltine. Still, he and his chums are entitle to sit back this morning and contemplate a good week's work.