Question time for the Tories: There will be no easy answers for John Major in the tough days ahead, says Donald Macintyre

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JOHN MAJOR and Norman Fowler have a great deal to talk about when they meet this morning. The final European election tally will not be known until the last few results are announced today. But the argument about whether the Tories would or would not secure more than 10 seats always obscured the fact that a performance worse than the one in the last European elections in 1989 cannot simply be glossed over.

A few months ago, one of the more perceptive middle-ranking ministers, a man tipped for early promotion, was musing in private that since the Conservatives 'only' had to improve on their 1989 showing of 35 per cent, the European elections might - thanks to the gathering economic recovery - actually show Tory gains.

Whatever the final outcome, that dream evaporated last night, as Sir Norman and Mr Major have known for several weeks it would. Whatever his faults, Mr Major is as shrewd a geographer of the political landscape as any; he has been prepared for this moment for almost two months. It has been popularly assumed among senior Tories that the death of John Smith has given Mr Major a reprieve he badly needed. Had Mr Smith lived, it was always possible that Mr Major's most sulphurous opponents would seek to assemble now the 34 names needed to precipitate a leadership contest, rather than wait till November when it would have real constitutional force. The purpose would have been simply to undermine Mr Major's leadership sufficiently to render his position untenable. It was never clear that such names could be assembled; and, after Mr Smith's death, the prospect of a Labour leadership contest made it pretty pointless for the Tory party to tear itself apart while there was a prospect of conflict within the Labour Party. That analysis has been modified by the virtual certainty of Tony Blair's accession. But, by all accounts, Mr Major decided before Mr Smith's death that he had no intention of going in any case. He had risen above some pretty black moods earlier this year, and he had told those Cabinet ministers closest to him that he planned to stay, whatever happened.

He can, moreover, make a good case for doing so. One of the several elements in the Tory nightmare is the experience of the Canadian Conservatives. But the Canadian Tories were wiped out after changing their leader - and the deposed Brian Mulroney, having the unique position in the industrialised world of a lower personal popularity rating than the national level of interest rates, was worse off than Mr Major.

Moreover, Mr Major's campaign, at least on European issues, was not only in its way more coherent than Labour's; it also illustrated that he still has the ability to unify the party in an election. The architect of the 'multi-track Europe' dwelt on by Mr Major was Douglas Hurd; for the Prime Minister's lips the message was not only cruder but also paid a heavy price by encouraging the right to think he was now on their side. But it succeeded in silencing the right during the campaign. Also, there remains among some of Mr Major's opponents real doubt over whether either Kenneth Clarke or Michael Heseltine would be as successful in straddling a divide on Europe in the party which still threatens to split it in two.

Nevertheless, there are no easy strategies for the weeks and months ahead. Much emphasis has been put on the probable July reshuffle; but Cabinet reshuffles are almost invariably a struggle of hope against experience. Some close to Mr Major have advised him to show his toughness by making an example of John Redwood, one of the Euro-sceptic 'bastards'. Peter Lilley, who, remarkably, absented himself for a week of the Euro- campaign, might actually be a more suitable candidate for dismissal. But in any case, Mr Redwood - and perhaps Mr Lilley as well - would be a formidable adversary on the backbenches. Others would like him to confront Mr Heseltine with the unpalatable offer of the party chairmanship. But that would require an outstanding degree of self-confidence, since it is not a job Mr Heseltine wants. And so on. Sir Norman Fowler has made much this weekend of the prospect of Budget tax cuts; but if they are to happen this November they will mean deep and unpopular spending cuts. Besides, on present planning the Budget comes after the leadership election season, not before it.

And another question looms, larger certainly than last night's results, perhaps larger even than the Tory leadership. Its name is Tony Blair. The truism that Mr Blair is the man whom the Tories fear is only part of Mr Major's problem; it is the strength of the support for Mr Blair through all sections of the party that should genuinely alarm Conservatives, illustrating as it does the hunger for power within Labour ranks.

That poses two immediate questions for the Tories. The first is whether a party that constantly threatens to be hijacked by the right is best placed to meet a challenge from a Labour leader who, more than any since Hugh Gaitskell, appeals to the political middle ground. Every public pronouncement by Michael Portillo since last Thursday's by-elections - making clear, for example, his opposition to the single currency - suggests that the right now feels emboldened by the tenor of the European election campaign to seize more territory within the party. The impact of this on the voters in a general election can only be guessed at, but the signs so far are that it will provoke a backlash from the moderates and the pro-Europeans in the party, and that the public wrangling at the weekend between Sir Edward Heath and Norman Lamont is only a foretaste of what is to come.

Nor is there much sense in Cabinet ministers jabbering platitudes about the 'soft focus' approach to Mr Blair. It is perhaps more mature, as David Mellor did yesterday, to recognise Mr Blair as an 'exceptionally gifted politician', warn of the message his coming leadership contains for the Tories and call on the party to end its divisions.

The heart of the Tory malaise is that, for some, the issue of the party's view of Britain's future in Europe may now be more important than winning the next election. Labour has finally shown it wants power: the inescapable inference from an escalating civil war within Conservative ranks will be that the Tories no longer do.

(Photograph omitted)