It can be no secret that resignation is in the air. David Mellor's has already been called for, and got. Norman Lamont's has been called for and, even though it has not been got, he is acting like a man who has recently resigned.
And now the unthinkable is happening. The noise is going round that John Major's job is in jeopardy, and that the country may be looking for a new leader. Thus the available candidates are standing by in a country house near Brighton, going through various tests and waiting for the call, the standing ovation and the permanent 24-hour headache. The list is as follows.
(Before I give you the list of those on stand-by, may I correct something I said earlier? I suggested that the country might be looking for a new leader. I should, of course, have said that the Tory party might be looking for a new leader. I fell into this trap because a) the Tory party thinks it is the country, and b) we all like to pretend now and again that we choose our leaders, whereas they are all chosen for us, in the same way as the local MP is chosen for us, however much we think we are electing him. Thank you.)
And now the list of runners, together with hints on current form, pros and cons, etc.
Michael Heseltine. Famous for being able to bring Tory faithful to feet for baying ovations. Is this enough, ask his critics, to make a man prime minister? His supporters say, well, it was enough for Margaret Thatcher. Then his supporters and critics fly at each other's throats and one can't make out what they are saying after that.
Margaret Thatcher. Having nearly ruined Britain in the Eighties, she is said to be keen to return and finish the job off. However, at the current rate she charges for personal appearances, it is thought the UK might not be able to afford to rehire her.
Bryan Gould. Currently available, a good talker and not averse to resigning when necessary. The thinking behind selecting a well known Labour man is that as the next prime minister would almost certainly get a lot of stick for the continuing recession and the Government's woeful inability to get us out of it, it would be marvellous if someone from Labour got the blame for it without the party actually being in power.
Elizabeth II. The thinking here seems to be: if you want someone like Margaret Thatcher back, why not go the whole hog? And the Queen's salary would at last be justified.
Jeremy Paxman. One school of thought says that what the Tories need above all is someone who can cut a decent figure on TV and stand up to tough TV interviewing. Paxman could be that man. Also said to perform well in tough situations such as Queen-Mother-is-dead rehearsals.
Chris Patten. Being a Tory prime minister at the moment is a thankless task, and involves survival under withering fire. After Northern Ireland, Hong Kong and Bath, Chris Patten is thought to know more about rejection and cold shoulders than anyone in the party. His battle-hardness may be just what people are looking for.
Gore Vidal. If nothing else, has enviable ability to out-argue the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Tony Slattery. Flavour of the month. But those in favour of him would do well to ask themselves the question: whatever happened to Jonathan Ross?
Jacques Delors. The idea of having a Tory leader who can speak a foreign language properly is almost unthinkable. But Delors is a big name, who has already proved he can run a place bigger than the UK. And if Britain really doesn't want to be in Europe, say some, perhaps Europe should come to Britain.
Julian Critchley. A popular man outside the Tory party, this could be his last chance to be popular inside the party as well. However, his friends say he is more likely to support the Jacques Delors bid, on the grounds that it would not only be a good joke but also drive Margaret Thatcher round the bend.