Political Commentary: The dark horse in the Westminster handicap

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The Independent Online
HARDLY a week goes by when we do not read that the Conservative right have 'no candidate' to put up against Mr John Major. Mr Michael Howard is too slippery, Mr Michael Portillo too young; Mr Peter Lilley does not want the job; while Mr John Redwood is clearly a visitor from outer space. All this may be true enough. But it remains puzzling why the obvious candidate is never mentioned.

At 63 he is only two years older than Mr Michael Heseltine, to whom, we are told, right-wingers are turning in increasing numbers and who is, as a consequence, making noises which he hopes will prove acceptable to them. Mr Heseltine is never content to leave well alone, to let nature take its course: he must be noticed, even if it is only through saying that there are no conceivable circumstances at present which would impel him to challenge Mr Major.

The alternative candidate I am thinking of is, by contrast, genuinely diffident. He hates to thrust himself forward and to make a noise. At the same time he is the best debater in the House of Commons, as witty as Mr Tony Banks and several times as knowledgable. For five years he was the most popular Leader of the House in living memory. He is, as you will no doubt have guessed by now, Mr John Biffen.

After the 1987 election he was dropped by Lady Thatcher. This, she writes in her memoirs, was 'a loss in some ways', for he agreed with her about Europe and had 'sound instincts' in economic matters too, but had 'come to prefer commentary to collective responsibility'. In other words, he was, like a previous Leader of the House, Lord St John of Fawsley (who was more creative but less popular), sacked for cheek.

The precise details of his various impertinencies need not concern us now. It is enough if we note that his dismissal left him with an ineradicable dislike of the lady. Whether as a consequence or not, he professes warm feelings for her successor. Though Mr Biffen, an early follower of Mr Enoch Powell, is a true nationalist in a sense in which Mr Major is not, and in which Lady Thatcher only pretended to be, he remains a sceptical Cambridge historian.

Sir Bernard Ingham once famously described him as a 'semi- detached' member of the government. This was a fair and an accurate description of Mr Biffen, though it was criticised at the time. He could not stand all that screaming and shouting. As a corollary, he has a certain admiration for - anyway a sympathy with - Mr Major. He is most unlikely to stand against the Prime Minister, though he might win if he did. Stranger things have happened in recent Conservative elections.

This is one of the troubles with present-day politics: their instability. It will remain the trouble until November, when we shall know whether Mr Major is or is not to be opposed as leader of the party. If not, the speculation will wither. But it will not die away completely. Unless there is a distinct improvement in the economy, in the Conservative Party's standing in the polls or in both, the disaffected talk will bloom again in the spring of 1995.

For in November of that year there will still be time - just - for the Tories to choose a new prime minister for the forthcoming election. The royal prerogative is not what it was. It is idle to lament this state of affairs, which derives from the Conservatives' own electoral system. In 1990, when Lady Thatcher fell, it was asserted by many of her supporters and even some of her opponents that the system had never been intended for use against a Conservative prime minister. Mr Kenneth Clarke, for instance, admitted during his interview with Lady Thatcher that the system was 'farcical'. But the provision for annual elections had been proposed by Lord Home and accepted by the then leader, Sir Edward Heath, in 1974-5.

After 1990 there was an opportunity to change the rules. A group under Sir Cranley Onslow, the then Chairman of the 1922 Committee, considered the matter. The only change of substance which they proposed was that 10 per cent of Conservative members (now 33) should have to write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, now Sir Marcus Fox, requesting a contest.

Even the previous curiously mandatory tone of the electoral rules is maintained. For the revised rules state that an election shall be held provided the requisite proportion of MPs have asked for one. Indeed, in recommending his proposals in August 1991, Sir Cranley praised their democratic character, contrasting them to their advantage with the Labour Party's rules which, as he claimed with some justice, were 'designed to make a contest so difficult as to be almost impossible'.

Accordingly Sir Norman Fowler can hardly complain (though he still does) when the newspapers speculate about a challenge to Mr Major. They are merely reporting what the backbenchers are talking about. Nor are the members confined to Mr John Carlisle, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn and Mr Tony Marlow. They are fully aware of the powers which they possess and which were confirmed, with modifications, in 1991 - though most of them are a little hazy about how the 15 per cent 'surcharge' is to be calculated, maths not being the strong suit of the Conservatives, even with their latter-day infusion of estate agents, second-hand car dealers and double-glazing salesmen.

Nor are ministers immune from this febrile condition. In the ridiculous row over our voting rights in an enlarged European Community, Mr Heseltine and Mr Clarke egged on Mr Major in his inglorious course. They then sat back with their arms folded while he finished up looking a bit of an idiot. Their behaviour resembled that of King David, who lusted after Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. The story is related in II Samuel xi. David commanded: 'Set ye Uriah in the forefront

of the hottest battle, and retire

ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die.' This duly happened, and Bathsheba went to live with David, though naturally enough ('She mourned for her husband') she does not seem to have been a load of laughs. To Mr Heseltine and Mr Clarke, No 10 Downing Street is Bathsheba. Like her, it may turn out to be something of a disappointment.

In the meantime Mr Major has to survive the local elections - where, according to Sir Norman, he will take the leading part but for whose results he will bear no responsibility whatever. Then there will be the European elections. And then the Scott report will appear.

A few months ago it was being predicted that the report would be published in September. From the Government's point of view, this would be a highly convenient time, with Parliament in recess and most political correspondents still on holiday. If Sir Richard wishes to have the greatest impact, he will try to have his report published in the week beginning Monday 17 October, when the Conservative conference will just have ended and there will still be plenty of time for any Biffens to stand in the Conservatives' annual election.