Not so much a party, more a way of strife

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The Independent Online
AGAIN the chant is rising, so loud, so insistent, it drowns out everything else in politics. It is all the fault of one unhappy man - weak, hopeless, no damn good. From elevated columnists to backbench noodles, the anti-Major hysteria is reminiscent of nothing so much as the juvenile lynch-mob in Lord of the Flies: 'Kill the pig] Bash his brains out]' So this is what passes for wisdom? This all there is to be said?

It isn't: the Tory dilemma is far more interesting than that. After 15 years of continuous office, the great debates about this country's destiny have been displaced from Tory-

Labour struggle and have become internalised in the governing party. On Europe, on monetary policy, on taxation and public spending, the gap between the parties is smaller and less important than the gap between nationalist-Thatcherites and Christian Democrats inside the Tory party. Intellectually, at least, faction has replaced party as the essential unit of politics.

This has made the Conservatives endlessly fascinating, but it has been debilitating for conventional politics. It has produced a party of government unable to speak with one clear voice, and so increasingly difficult to lead. But the vitality of Tory factionalism has also usurped the normal role of opposition. The only area where controversy between the parties is more important than intra-Tory rows is constitutional, or political, reform. On current evidence, a future Labour government would find itself debating spending, taxes and Europe along rhetorical tracks laid down in advance by today's Tory factions.

These are big changes in the ecology of politics. It is, though, easier and more convenient to focus on the symptom, a weak prime minister. It is convenient for those who dream of his crown. It is convenient for disgruntled backbenchers for whom his fall would cancel out past snubs. It is convenient, too, for those Tory newspapers which, after the adrenalin-rush of bringing down a Prime Minister, will want a plausible reason for reasserting the natural Conservative order. All round, chaps, and taking everything into consideration . . . Kill the Pig]

And, of course, there are good reasons for Tories to try to remove the Prime Minister later this year. He has failed to attract the country's attention except as a victim. More brutally still, he has lost the Tory press and, however much they might deplore it, some Tories will conclude that the party would be well-advised to face reality and let the editors have their victory.

Those are strong arguments, if not all noble ones. But to focus solely on the Prime Minister, rather than on the Conservative factionalism that dominates politics and shreds his authority, is to make a logical error. If the party can confront its factionalism then it can win under any leader, even Mr Major. But if it cannot, then getting rid of him won't help much - and may make things worse.

A leadership change would worsen the factional battle unless it were smooth and agreed by all sides. So Mr Major's attitude rather matters. He has been telling friends that any attempt to oust him would be bloody. He would not go gentle into that goodbye. If the 'men in grey suits' arrived he'd kick them out. Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? But it makes sense for him to want to fight on. If he went now, professionally, he would be written off as a failure and, personally, would face a rather lonely, empty-looking future. But while there's office, there's hope.

So, though rumours of an early departure continue to swirl round Whitehall, let's assume that these current expressions of determination are genuine. Would a 'bloody' leadership contest make the underlying problem of factionalism worse or better? There would have to be an open leadership challenge by the right, perhaps by Norman Lamont, and Mr Major would demand cabinet loyalty to repulse it. Then anything might happen - but there would be great bitterness. Whoever emerged as leader would not be able to hope for a loyal Cabinet or a united party behind him.

One cabinet minister told me at the weekend that he believed the ousting of Major in such circumstances would lead inexorably to a Canadian-style rout at the next general election. No one possesses sure foresight. But that prospect should be balanced against the shallow optimism of those Tories who dream of a quiet coup, followed by economic and political recovery under a new leader.

If Mr Major is determined to try and survive another difficult year, what can the Government do to reverse its declining authority? On this, at least, there seems to be widespread agreement among senior ministers. Dullness is called for, while the party waits for the fruits of recovery. No more big ideas, no more relaunches. It has now become the Government's priority to demonstrate modest competence, not simply talk about it. This may mean ditching unpopular and peripheral policies to concentrate on a few things. I detect, for instance, a rising feeling throughout the ministries against the shake-up in English local government, as being simply not worth the flak.

But the big question is whether the factionalists of right and left can summon up the self-discipline to cool it during the year ahead. Even inside Cabinet there is a row brewing about the naked ambition of some colleagues. There are high Tories who would simply stalk out of government in disgust if Mr Major were ousted. At a less dramatic level, one senior minister put it, 'I want chaps to take their hats out of the ring. And no more speeches on Tory philosophy, thanks very much.' On past performance, and with the European elections brewing, this looks highly unlikely. What the Tory party needs, and knows it needs, is nerve and self- control. But what the Tory party will do is another matter entirely.