Political Commentary : Hurd's still got a lot to do before he hangs up his red box

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The Independent Online
THE NINE members who are not in receipt of the government whip have done great things. They have constrained ministers to treat them with a modicum of civility, at any rate in public. They have felt able to reply in the same way as pretty girls b eing asked for the next dance. In their constituencies they are, with a couple of exceptions, treated as heroic figures. They are now within sight of their greatest achievement: to force the resignation of the Foreign Secretary and to limit the Prime Min ister in his choice of successor. As Mr John Major might put it: "We are all bastards now."

On the surface, it is their achievement alone to turn Mr Major into a more or less fully-paid-up Europhobe. Mr William Cash has played hardly any part in recent stirring events. Mr Michael Spicer has kept quiet. Mr John Biffen has retired into elder statesmanship. It may be, however, that the Prime Minister's shift to a more disobliging attitude towards what are called Our European Partners is neither as pervasive nor as extensive as some people suppose.

After all, politicians say all kinds of things on Sir David Frost's programme - where Mr Major recently said in effect that he was opposed to a single European currency - and then they try to unsay them. It is certain also that, if there has been a change in Mr Major, the Europhobes are exaggerating it to attempt to maximise their own standing. To make something happen in politics, it is often a useful device to pretend that it already has and that accordingly there is no profit in fighting against it.

Nevertheless, when all the qualifications have been made, a change of some kind does seem to have taken place. Mr Major does not speak of Mr Kenneth Clarke, the Cabinet's leading Europhile, with his former warmth. This froideur may have come about not somuch because of Mr Clarke's views in general as because it was he who was most insistent on disciplining the recalcitrant members before the cash-for-Europe vote had even taken place - and was therefore responsible for landing the Govern- ment in its present parliamentary mess. It matters not, as the barristers say. Whatever the reason, relations between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are not as cordial as they were.

Mr Clarke can, however, go away and play with his figures - or get others to play with them on his behalf. Mr Douglas Hurd is in a different position. On Thursday he suffered the indignity of being asked by the Cabinet to go away and rewrite a paper on the inter-governmental conference of 1996. It was apparently too accommodating to our partners and insufficiently emphatic about British interests.

Mr Hurd may not do as he was told. He may resign instead as, until recently, he was expected to do, not because of pique, but because he had attained the great age of 65 and wanted to write books, to make money in the City or, conceivably, to do both. Itis humbug of Conservatives to say that former cabinet ministers are hired by City firms for large quantities of fine old English banknotes because they possess a special expertise. They are hired because they are former Conservative cabinet ministers. The City is seen as a form of income support or supplementary benefit for this class of person. "Poor Douglas," one is always being told, "has no money," though he has always seemed to have enough of the stuff to lead a fairly comfortable life by most people's standards.

Anyway, there would have been nothing surprising in Mr Hurd's taking honourable retirement in the summer. Up to a few weeks ago, that was what was expected. Then Mr Hurd let it be known that he intended to see this government out. There were, it appeared, many pressing concerns on his mind. He had much to do before finally hanging up his red box, or whatever it is that foreign secretaries do at the end of their days.

His principal preoccupation must clearly be Europe. Mr Hurd is a former diplomat, a Foreign Office man. The FO was traditionally the department most favourable to the European Community (or Common Market in those days). With the Empire gone and the Anglo-American alliance not what it was, our membership gave the Office's personnel the opportunity to carry on prancing, even though on a different stage. The Treasury, by contrast, was always more sceptical of the benefits conferred.

Mr Hurd was also, for six years, Sir Edward Heath's political secretary. He has, in short, form as long as your arm. No wonder the Europhobes would like to see him sent down for a good long stretch.

The kaleidoscope of politics has now been shaken so that what would have appeared unremarkable a few months ago - that is, Mr Hurd's retirement - will now be seen as a victory for the Europhobes or, at least, as evidence of a shift in government policy towards the Community. If he were to be replaced by Mr Jonathan Aitken, Mr Michael Howard, Mr Peter Lilley, Mr Michael Portillo or Mr John Redwood, victory would be complete. Mr Major's move towards Europhobia has not gone as far as that. In any c ase, hesuspects Mr Portillo of being after his job, while the rest possess other deficiencies too numerous conveniently to list, though that has never prevented prime ministers of the past from making some extraordinary appointments when it has suited t heir purposes.

It is often said that Mr Major could not appoint a Europhile successor to Mr Hurd because that would "split the Party even more", or bring about a state of "all-out civil war". But the reality is that there is no such obvious successor in sight. Mr Clarke knows he is better off where he is, though Mr Malcolm Rifkind is a possibility. So also is Mr Michael Heseltine.

Of late, the old boy has given the impression of languishing somewhat at Trade, with the Post Office paralysed and British Coal sold off to one of the few entrepreneurs who have survived Lady Thatcher's 1980s. This does not seem to make any difference tothe way Mr Heseltine is regarded by the backbenchers. If anything, his stock has gone up lately. If there is a crisis, as there may be next autumn if the opinions polls have not changed drastically, he will be the only politician to whom the party can turn for salvation.

Mr Heseltine is well aware of this, which is why - to make himself more broadly acceptable - he has of late been inserting the odd unfriendly reference to Europe, even though he has European form almost as impressive as Mr Hurd's. Mr Major is as aware asMr Heseltine of the latter's possible role as a saviour in November. He would be unwise to polish up Mr Heseltine's by now somewhat tarnished breastplate and hand him a brand-new sword with which to amuse himself.

The consensus is that, if Mr Hurd departs, Mr Major will go for Mr Ian Lang, Sir Patrick Mayhew or even Mrs Gillian Shephard. Unless Mr Rifkind is appointed, the Europhobes will claim victory. If Mrs Shephard (a closet Europhobe) gets the job, they will be right. But they will not know quite what to make of Michael.

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