Something has shifted. Major has lost

It isn't the contestants who haunt the corridors, it's an almost silent observer - Michael Heseltine
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Inflationary pressures are currently affecting the Westminster time-zone; a weekend is now a long time in politics. The plot has changed since John Major was exuding confidence at the end of last week. There is a turn against him. It is subtly but unmistakably there - in the body language of MPs, and in the tones of whispering voices, and in the lobby micro-dramas of who's speaking to whom.

It has something to do with the anti-Major newspaper editorials; the loss of HMS Daily Telegraph to enemy dive-bombers being a particular blow to Downing Street. It also reflects the feelings of wavering Tory MPs who have failed to hear the overwhelming endorsement for Major from their constituencies that they'd expected.

But the underlying messages that matter most are coming from the chatty, influential little clusters of Heseltine and Portillo people. For different reasons, both seem to be shifting position in favour of a second ballot. This doesn't mean that Major won't win; but it isn't good news for him.

Tory MPs have had two propositions put to them in recent days. The first is that only Major can unite the party. The second is that Major cannot win the general election. Conservatives have had a difficult time, partly because they believe that both things are true.

But what if someone else can bind the party together, even if only for a bit? A pro-Heseltine network is up and ringing round Whitehall and the Commons, passing on gossip and back-of-envelope calculations about his likely performance in a head-to-head contest with Portillo. Though people on the left are still terrified that Portillo would surge past them, the feeling is growing that Hezza's numbers are good.

Heseltine was being dismissed last week on the terrace as a rather moth- eaten act. This cannot have pleased him; he has been lying very low as a matter of policy. Now, though, his admirers are laying quiet plans for a flashy re-entrance. Should Major disappear from contention, Hezza would suddenly arrive in the contest flanked by several senior ministers, playing Sun King to Portillo's upstart pretender.

The problem for Hezza is that he would have to be able to offer the right something on Europe, to go with his menu of privatisation, deregulation, workfare and support for local government. This could be the assertion that a single currency was unlikely in the lifetime of the next parliament. He would therefore be willing to make a manifesto commitment against "abolishing the pound'' during that period. Alternatively, he could offer a free Commons vote on a referendum.

How would Kenneth Clarke react? He still has a loyal though small band of parliamentary supporters who might make the difference in any Heseltine- Portillo fight. Clarke would be in a strong position to get a deal from Hezza, both concerning his own position in cabinet and on a "never say never'' position on the single currency. I'm pretty sure a Hezza-Clarke deal could be put together. The question would then be how many cabinet members did not rally behind Heseltine.

What of the Portillo supporters,though? The general assumption has been that the better things look for Heseltine, the worse they must look for the neo-Thatcherites. The Prime Minister, it is said, cannot lose the support of both the left and the right.

Or can he? Let us look at two possible outcomes through Portillo's cool gaze. The first one is that Major wins tonight by enough of a margin to carry on. Redwood stays out of the Government and takes his case to the Tory right-wingers in the country, using arguments Portillo agrees with, speaking to people Portillo thought were his natural constituency, and enjoying the admiring support of Lady Thatcher and Lord Tebbit. Poor old Portillo, meanwhile, has to keep his lips half-buttoned. He is an 18-month Trappist. If the party wins under Major he's finished, because Major is so mistrustful of his behaviour this summer. And if it loses, Portillo is part of the losing crew.

The second possibility involves a wider contest now. Portillo people still half think that their man could win it. But even if he couldn't, he would be staking his claim. Having elbowed aside John Redwood, he would be in a strong position to get a better job from Heseltine. He would know that Heseltine wasn't going to be around for very long. In other words, it might suit Portillo better to fight and lose a contest now than not to fight at all.

So a somewhat ominous pattern is emerging, under which both the Tory left and the Portillo right decide to abstain or vote against Major in sufficient numbers to force him out this evening; or at least to seriously damage him.

As I argued last week, this is a dangerous and unpredictable game. Nor does it necessarily follow that MPs will agree to play it: most people at Westminster still seem to assume a clear Major victory. Yet something has changed: you only need to look at Major's lieutenants to see it. The campaign has certainly highlighted, in the most glaring way possible, both John Major's strengths as a leader and his weaknesses. He has been lucid, reasonable and shrewd. He turned in a startlingly good performance in the Commons. He has charmed.

But his tactical skills haven't been impressive. He launched this ambush on the right without ensuring personally that all his cabinet were on- side. He announced that the 1922 Committee executive was backing him when five of them hadn't been consulted.

And yesterday came one of the most maladroit moves of all - the freeing of Lee Clegg on the orders of Sir Patrick Mayhew. Putting on one side the rights and wrongs of the business, it must surely have been obvious both to him and to Mr Major that the timing of Clegg's release would be seen in Ireland as a piece of cynical British party politics, designed to placate the Tory right. They must have known that whatever they said, they would not be believed; and that therefore the republican reaction would be particularly fierce and dangerous. Yet still they went ahead.

The decision came from Sir Patrick, who had heralded this contest with a warning about the peace process on the grounds that a delay would have kept Clegg in jail for an extra few days. Maybe. But to make this move at this time, seems clumsy, amateurish, panicky politics - not a glorious finale to one of the most extraordinary fortnights in the history of the Conservative Party.

But now that's all behind us. Now the chatter ceases and solid votes replace airy speculation. And it's a strange thing, but as the private business of the ballot gets under way, it isn't the loud and declamatory contestants who seem to haunt these corridors. It's someone who has been an almost silent observer throughout. Five years on, if a prime minister gets a nasty shock at teatime, it will be Ol' Hezza, once again, who is to blame.