Sit back and watch the Tories swing

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NO ONE believes that the Conservative Party can win the next election, and no one believes that it should do so, either. So the country is unanimous - fabulously unanimous. Deep in their hearts, all Tories acknowledge that the last election victory was a disaster for the party, that it was undeserved, and that punishment must follow.

So (at this steaming, stewing level of the subconscious) none of the punishments that are meted out come as a surprise. If economic policy collapses, that had to happen anyway. If scandals come thick and fast, this is karma, this is part of the punishment package. If the Tory party is split and the Labour Party is not split, this pays the Tories back for their years of triumphalism.

Tories who remain sane today do so by understanding that they are being punished and that they deserve to be punished. Christianity will have prepared them for this style of thought.

To say, then, that the Conservative Party might feel obliged to seek a new leader later in the year does not mean, in 1994, what it would normally mean. Normally, a new leader's job is to lead a party to victory. But the Conservatives dread victory more than anything else - victory will only lead to further humiliating punishment from God.

The next leader's job will be to seem to want to win the race, while in fact taking great care to lose it (if, through some accident, victory even looms). Immense skill is needed, in a jockey for instance, to pull off such a feat convincingly in front of a crowd of punters and connoisseurs. But this is the inner meaning, the secret import, of all the recent 'jockeyings for position'.

One might go further and say that a large part of the present Tory contempt for John Major derives precisely from his having won the last election, from his not having understood that he was supposed to chuck it. For consider: a Tory is professedly a Christian, a patriot and (thirdly, but no less passionately) a democrat. How shaming his present plight must be, on all three counts.

In particular, for the democrat in him, the sense of having hogged the political process all these years, when every child who is brought up to believe in anything is brought up to believe that he should 'let others have a go'. 'Don't hog the swing, Cecil' - his parents' words ring down over the decades. He has been hogging the swing, and now it is only just that the swing will hog him.

Meanwhile, what are the Tories to do before their government collapses? How are they to fill in the time? Their minds alternate between radical and quietist solutions: go down like the GLC, in a blaze of gestures, or give up here and now, die as an ideological force and go into the next battle like El Cid, dead and strapped to his horse.

As spectators in all this, Labour voters would prefer the El Cid option (although not its sequel, victory for the dead Cid) since we see that what is done can rarely be undone. There is still plenty of time on the Tories' hands for the closure of this, the flogging off of that, the mislaying of the other. The mining industry, after all, disappeared in a flash.

Heaven protect us from a government intent on going down in a blaze. But if we cannot have an utterly brain- dead government, if the El Cid option is over-ambitious, then a rolling leadership crisis does at least have the merit of filling in the time before the next election.

Since the country is unanimous (in its heart of hearts, in the ground of its being) about the appropriate outcome, we can all be clear what the principle of selection for the leadership should be. A Hurd candidacy, were it on offer, would mean: OK, I lose the next one, then I make way for the better man who will by then be ready.

A Heseltine candidacy, by contrast, would mean: yes, if we must, I lose, but I lose in such style that, morally, I win; consequently I am allowed to hang on to the party for as long as my health allows me. Heseltine would thus be presenting himself as the feel-good-in-opposition candidate.

The danger with a Heseltine leadership, from the Tory point of view, is this: could he really be trusted to lose the election, or might he not, by some amazing fluke, discover a way to win? If such a discovery were made, might not personal ambition overrule party loyalty to such an extent that he would go ahead and win anyway, that he would 'do a Major on us'?

To anyone prepared to entertain the possibility of a fluke victory, that outcome seems frighteningly possible. After all, Mr Major was chosen by Margaret Thatcher, after her ousting, as a contrast to herself - a modest loser. He was never designed to be a howling success, nor even the whimpering success he for a while became. The provision of retrospective glory - that was his task. He should fail, and then (as Mrs T had programmed him) he should autodestruct.

Something went wrong. Something keeps going wrong. And if Heseltine cannot be relied on to take an objective view of his own historical role, how much less could one rely on any of his junior colleagues?

Rumours of Tory MPs facing possible bankruptcies (as reported in the Independent on Sunday yesterday) have this convenient quality of getting the Government off the hook. It is like Cavafy's 'Waiting for the Barbarians', in which the supposedly imminent arrival of the hordes is seen as 'a kind of solution' to the troubles of the Government.

The bankruptcy scenario, in which so many MPs are forced by their Lloyd's losses to resign that the Tory majority disappears down Carey Street, has a lurid grandeur when viewed from afar. It is on the individual level that it looks less attractive.

Why should Edward Heath be bankrupted? Where is the justice there? Where is the gratitude to the perpetrator of the longest political huff in modern history? Or why should Hartley Booth or David Ashby, both of them already unfortunate enough, be forced to walk the personal equity plank? The one confessed to a sinful affair, in which the defining sin that makes an affair an affair was missing. The other goes on gourmet weekends with chums, and nearly made history by being forced to resign on grounds of gluttony.

The Government must go in the end, and for a while it must go on being punished. Its sin was hogging the swing too long. It must be left to swing a little longer.

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