Party on the edge of a nervous breakdown

When Maggie was falling, Tories hoped for a saviour. Today, even that seems a far-off prospect as despair spreads ...
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The Independent Online
Despair grips the Conservative Party, from cabinet level down to the constituency workers. The mood is reminiscent of the last days of Margaret Thatcher, though this time there is a widespread fear that exhaustion and disunity make electoral defeat almost inevitable, whoever is the leader.

Many once-solid MPs want John Major to go, even so, to minimise the defeat; if he won't, others are determined to force him out in the autumn. Still others, though, think that a leadership contest would be the final act of nervelessness that would condemn the party to slaughter. The gossiping and manoeuvring is intense and complicated as different individuals and factions try to guess what might happen and how best to exploit it.

Everyone agrees that the situation is desperate. But after that, everyone has a different angle on what, if anything, must be done to save the Tories. Here, then, is an impressionistic sketch of the sort of arguments swirling through the Commons.

From Sir Oliver Biscuit's viewpoint ... as a typical backbencher, I speak for the vast bulk of the party, when I say I am getting absolutely brown- trousered. My constituency, Waitrose South West, is about as "blue" as they come. But the mood of the workers at the annual general meetings I have been going round is grim. The councillors, who are the backbone of my association, reckon they are mostly going to be flung out this year. If that happens, I will lose most of my key people and I might well lose my seat - something I had never quite believed possible until a few months ago.

"Don't tell me the Prime Minister's a nice man," the party chairman said the other day. "We all know that. But we want someone who can lead us, someone who can win." So what is to be done? I've been approached to put my name down to demand a leadership contest in the autumn. But it's a risky business. I wish the PM would simply go. Nothing dishonourable in that. He's had a good innings.

But I tell you this: if these local elections are as bad as they look, and he doesn't quit, I'll have a word with Marcus Fox. I've always been loyal before. But this time, things are just too bad. Draft Hezza, I say. Can't stand the fellow. But he's the only chap who might help me hold my seat.

From John Major's viewpoint ... Bastards. Let them try it. I never get the credit. Well I'm not going easily. Northern Ireland's my great success and I'm bloody staying around to finish the job.

I know where the muttering's coming from; that's why I had the constituency chairmen into Downing Street this week. I know this party. I'm not like Heseltine or Clarke, the bastards, I didn't join up in some Oxbridge clique, I worked my way up. These are my people and if only I can speak to them directly, they'll rally behind me.

As for the parliamentary party, the bastards, once they understand that they're going to have to drag me out of here physically, they'll back down. I hope they will.

From Elizabeth Rover's viewpoint ... As a pro-Major minister, I am in utter despair. I agree with old Olly Biscuit about the awfulness of our plight. I think Labour are getting away with murder and most of our chaps have simply given up. Relations at cabinet level are rotten with mistrust. But I am worried about what the public will say about us if we force Major out. Despite my gloom, I think we have to stick with him. You never know, "dogged does it" might still come right. He has before.

From Michael Heseltine's viewpoint ... Like the old soldier, I hear the trumpets and the pulse races. It is never over till it's over, and it isn't over yet.

If John goes, that ragged army will clamour for me. The odds will be dreadful. But it would be a glorious fight, a last battle to catch the imagination of every romantic in these islands.

By God, there would be a few hoarse voices and wet eyes, even if we lost by only a few seats at the end. That I am waiting, you know. That I am ready, be sure.

From Michael Portillo's viewpoint ... Calm. Think. Think. This a very important moment. The prize is within reach, but far from certain. I have become the most favoured next Prime Minister but one. But I am not yet much liked outside the cadre of the faithful. I am, I know, regarded as impetuous and a little dangerous. So I have been widening my appeal. There have been the High Tory speeches, speaking of duty and service and the institutions in ways that Douglas Hurd himself would approve of. Dammit, looking back, I almost find myself sounding like Tony Blair. No matter. The process of acquiring "bottom", that least attractive and most necessary of Tory qualities, proceeds apace.

If the PM stays then, tactically, I have no problem. We on the right have essentially won the European argument: it is the Euro-maniacs who are panicking and rocking the boat these days. Every time I go into some Beeb studio sounding loyal, relaxed and calm I strengthen my position. A true Tory, I fight, fight and fight again. Then, after the inevitable election defeat, my way is clear.

But if John goes soon, what then? There will be a great chorus for me to stand and, frankly, I might just seize the crown. The risks, though, are huge. Even if I did win the leadership, I'd probably lose the election. The shrewd thing would be to ally myself with Hezza. This means that if there is a competition to succeed Major this year, it happens because Ken enters the fight against him, not me - so all the blame for splitting the party in its hour of peril accrues to the left. I stand selflessly by, storing up brownie points by the sackful. I become what I most need to become - a sound man. I would like the Treasury from Hezza in return, but I would settle for the DTI. There is a risk of damaging myself by being over-eager now. So on balance, I think I will surprise everybody - and fold my arms and stand back.

From Kenneth Clarke's point of view ... Damn John, damn all the Michaels, damn the lot of them. They're all bonkers. I'm off down the pub.