Plenty of room for Dimwit, Thuggo and all

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SO JOHN MAJOR has decided to get tough. He will, at last, use his authority as national leader to quell the Tory factions of right and left. Or so the story, a familiar one, goes. For journalists the revival of Major would be unfortunate: most of the trade is biased, not against him, but in favour of mayhem, or 'news' as it is sometimes called. We are imps, gambolling as the edifice falls.

The rest of the country, which owns the edifice, might take a different view. It has not been a pretty sight, this decadent civil war mingling high questions of national destiny with festering personal vendettas and career prospects inside the ruling party. There are good reasons why most people should yearn for a return to ordinary party politics.

Tory factionalism is certainly important politics - it concerns crucial economic and constitutional issues, real choices, openly espoused. But it is also unhealthy politics. It cuts out the voters who, under the current system, will not be offered the chance to choose between Christian Democrats and Nationalist Conservatives at the ballot box. Yes, they can always vote Labour in protest, but Labour hasn't been particularly relevant to this argument, so for many people that isn't an adequate choice. Our system depends on the big choices being put before the people, at least some of the time.

All of which could be turned into a Tory argument for voting reform, but probably won't be. Why? Because even the most factionalist Conservative MPs find the current system, which blurs their differences, more convenient. They assume that internal rows can be temporarily closed down whenever elections loom. They can cease to be 'Thatcherites' or 'Lollards' or whatever, stand as simple broad- church Tories, and then go back to their private civil war afterwards. Well, bully for them. But this is hardly a good deal for representative democracy.

The choices that underlie Tory feuding will not go away. But there is a chance, at least in theory, that compromises can be found that would isolate the most extreme factionalists and allow most Tories to turn their attention to Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the time-honoured fashion. Neither Tory faction would win. Neither Tory faction can win. So the big questions would be put to one side, and other questions found which would neatly divide Tories from the other parties.

This is what Mr Major and Douglas Hurd, dealing with the European manifesto in particular, are trying to achieve. However, they cannot restore the authority of the party leadership simply by an exercise of willpower, or by brilliantly evasive drafting. They need the help of the Tory factionalists themselves. Fat chance, you may think, and recent events confirm your scepticism.

Take Michael Portillo's latest 'gaffe' about foreigners buying their examination results. Clearly his choice of words was inaccurate and mildly offensive, though hurting no one in particular. But did it really deserve all that eyeball-rolling, nostril-flaring, theatre of apoplexy? You would have thought the man had called for the invasion of Belgium.

It was, in fact, a minor gaffe, though a revealing one, which would have been noted and quickly forgotten, except that its author is the Thatcherite Crown Prince. The Tory left needs to get him, and get him they did, blowing up the story out of all proportion with expressions of horror. Portillo is a factional enemy first and a fellow Conservative second. The right does exactly the same thing. It was Thatcherite journalists, goaded by Thatcherite MPs, who were among the first to go for Kenneth Clarke after his Budget tax rises. For them, it was far more important to pick away at his personal position than to support him as Conservative Chancellor.

In the short term, this compulsive disloyalty may actually help Mr Major as cabinet rivals are undermined by the feuding backbenchers. But in any other term it makes a mockery of the very notion of national leadership. Even the most ambitious of cabinet ministers must be wondering now whether the top job is do-able in these circumstances. (Although, human nature being what it is, they will probably conclude that it is - just - but only by that remarkably handsome fellow in the mirror.)

The real test of Downing Street's authority will come in the European elections, which directly tie the standing of the Prime Minister to the political argument that most inflames the Conservative ideologues. If they are worried enough to shut up, and support party at the expense of faction, then Mr Major has won some sort of victory, even if mauled at the polls, and we will be back in the world of familiar party politics. But if the right and left go for each other, then it's all over for Mr Major's campaign to pull the party together.

And, at least during the couple of years before the next general election, the closed, unstable era of factional politics would continue: good news for chirpy, gambolling journalists and bad news for the political system. Even the European triumph of Labour and the Liberal Democrats would be judged mainly by what it meant for the Prime Minister and the Tory factions, as if it was merely an incident off-stage in that continuing drama.

As for Mr Major . . . well, he would no doubt find it grimly funny to be blamed for the 1994 defeat by the very same Tory factionalists who contributed to it. He would go, or perhaps he would stay, and whichever he did would not be a matter of huge consequence. If he went, whoever took over would appeal to the factions to 'put the past behind us'. And the factions would say: 'Yes, Prime Minister, just so long as you put Dimwit into the Treasury and give Thuggo the Home Office and . . .' And the whole thing would carry on.