Policy? Sorry, I've got a rumour to spread

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Westminster has, as a rule, the attention-span of an abnormally dim gnat. The political world acts and thinks on a ridiculously short timescale, wallowing in a daily, sometimes hourly, cascade of unexpected events and instant judgements that are then as instantly forgotten and reversed.

Thus, within five minutes of the first vague rumours of an IRA ceasefire seeping through the Palace yesterday afternoon, pro-Major partisans were already seizing on it as a coup for the Prime Minister, a welcome and timely reminder of his nerve and negotiating skill. And his enemies were cheerily predicting that the ceasefire would merely make things far, far worse.

What was notable was that a potentially important matter for Northern Ireland was judged immediately against the yardstick of its effect on the Prime Minister's political stature. What would the Ulster Unionist MPs do about any further talks? What would a reopening of the peace process mean for Mr Major's ability to hang on in Number 10? Would the backbench critics be able to exploit it? This odd world-view has been constant for months and will continue to dominate politics for the rest of this year. Gnats are not philosophers - but they know the smell of blood.

Mr Major can turn his fortunes around, according to his most loyal supporters in Cabinet, only by a radical change in style and tactics. He would have to take gambles he has rejected every time they have been suggested before. The loyalist ministers' logic is that Mr Major is hopelessly unpopular among the Westminster in-crowd, and indeed in the party itself, but is still strongly supported in the country. So, as one friend put it, he must appeal directly to the people in order to keep his job.

He must get out of the hot-house of SW1 and campaign for the local and European elections on the stump. His Westminster appearances should be limited to Prime Minister's Questions, followed by twice-weekly visits to the tea room and dinners with backbenchers. To lighten the load, legislation should be slashed back, big 'philosophical' speeches jettisoned, and the burden of prime ministerial life lifted - including a ruthless pruning of the endless procession of visits by foreign dignitaries.

At the same time, the cerebral Sarah Hogg, head of the Downing Street policy unit, should be augmented by more political minds and Number 10 should turn once more to the 'black arts' of management last seen during the Thatcher years. This would almost certainly include a covert campaign to take Michael Heseltine down a peg or two, plus a dramatic summer reshuffle. Both wings of the party are already calling for a cull of the rival gang. John Redwood's chilly lack of enthusiasm when asked about Mr Major yesterday makes the Welsh Secretary a likely candidate for the chop. Meanwhile, say the loyalists, a swathe of ambitous young backbenchers should be brought into the Government, some straight to minister of state level.

It is, however, a solemn fact that even the most loyal ministers are steeped in gloom about Mr Major's handling of the European voting dilemma and are ready to discuss the pros and cons of a Heseltine or Kenneth Clarke succession. The series of pro-Major loyalty declarations from those two, and from Douglas Hurd, seemed an admission of the seriousness of his loss of authority during the past 48 hours. They, too, are being swept along by a backbench and media-driven narrative. In this mood, almost everything can be twisted into a coded leadership message: no one really thinks Mr Clarke nipped out early yesterday morning, slapped together a quick wax effigy of himself and cuddled it as part of a carefully laid leadership campaign. But his cheery twirl for the photographers, followed by his assertion that he intended to succeed Mr Major, was a useful reminder to the party that he is still a contender.

But behind the day-to-day jostling, crisis-management and bickering about Mr Major is a growing despair in the party about the possibility of defeating Labour in the general election, whenever it comes. There is a mood of defeatism, talk of a 1906-style slaughter. The MPs to watch closely over the next few months will be those with majorities of, say, less than 7,000: it is their fear that will keep the anti- Major story bubbling after Easter.

At a deeper level, some are beginning to ask how long Conservatives who are first and foremost anti- Brussels nationalists can live in the same party as ardent pro-Europeans. The party's agonising civil war, which destroyed Margaret Thatcher's leadership and may well end Mr Major's, is in a sense a displaced political battle that should have taken place at the hustings. But there is no nationalist party to vote for. Perhaps, if the voting system is changed by a future non-Tory government, one day there will be.

That is all even further in the future than a leadership challenge. Whatever happens this year, however, it is beginning to look as if the Conservative Party cannot provide the country with a stable premiership until it radically alters its system of annual leadership elections. This 'every one a coconut' approach to the top job positively invites morale-sapping speculation about the November contest among the legion of disappointed or critical MPs. This year, we may have eight months or so of that to come. One day, Mr Major will be further down; the next he will briefly rally.

Sooner or later, I suspect, the public will become terminally bored with these daily medical reports. For the time being, though, Westminster will be able to offer the country little else. It is hard to argue that we should ignore the small matter of the Prime Minister's future. But such discussion is likely to be almost as debilitating for the democracy as it is for the wretched Mr Major himself.