The crowd jeers but Mr Major seems unable to hear

Political Commentary
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It was on 16 March that I made up my mind the Conservatives were going to lose the election. I can be precise about the date because that was the day England were playing Ireland at Twickenham. I can even be fairly exact about the time. It was shortly before kick-off, and some Rugby Union apparatchik or other announced with evident pride over the loudspeaker that Mrs Virginia Bottomley was present at the match.

This intelligence was not greeted with a polite round of applause or even silence - either would have been the response 20 years ago - but with booing and jeering. Yet Mrs Bottomley conforms to the average English rugby follower's vision of womanhood. Some of the players have wives or girlfriends who look like younger versions. If she could arouse such hostility, the prospects for her party must be dire. That was what struck me at the time. Exactly the same thought occurred to Mr Simon Hoggart, as he told us afterwards in the Spectator.

The same thought is in the minds of most backbenchers and ministers, with the exception of Mr John Major, who really does think he can pull it off again. He does not share the view Lord Callaghan expressed to Lord Donoughue in 1979:

"You know there are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change, and it is for Mrs Thatcher."

The analogy between 1979 and today is admittedly inexact. Lady Thatcher was offering something different from Lord Callaghan - even if it did not sound so different then as it turned out to be. But Mr Tony Blair is not offering anything very different from Mr Major. Both parties are agreed, for example, that the welfare state as thought up by William Beveridge and put into effect by Aneurin Bevan and the now unjustly forgotten Jim Griffiths must be supplemented by private insurance. They differ about the proportions, that is all: about the relative burdens to be assumed by citizen and state.

But then, Labour politicians and academics differ among themselves too. It is surely extraordinary that the Conservatives are not exploiting this and similar disagreements, over devolution, for instance. It needs a specific and easily understood case, previously taken up by the Sun or the Daily Mail - Ms Harriet Harman's son - before Conservatives are capable of deploying it against the Opposition.

Mr Blair may not be offering anything very different. But most Conservatives have concluded that he is going to win the election none the less. They have left the Army to fight one another instead. People say this is what happens in the Labour Party. It is true only partially. Though there have been rebellions during Labour governments, the spells of ferocious warfare - of boots, bicycle chains and even knives - have been confined within periods of opposition: 1951-57, 1970-74 and 1979-83. What is happening with the Conservatives is something new in modern politics.

Last week I could hardly believe it when the formerly Whipless Ones, who now call themselves the Magnificent Eight, put on a public display at a self-admiring press conference. There is a mystery about numbers here. Sir Richard Body was not originally one of them because he had resigned the Whip voluntary. He was a sort of honorary member. But there he was at the press conference, large as you like. So someone else must have dropped out.

At all events, the eight, nine or whatever clearly do not care. They are reminiscent of the Greek Hippocleides who, according to Herodotus, got drunk on his wedding night, danced on a table and behaved in a generally riotous fashion. His new wife, clearly a determined girl, was not prepared to put up with this nonsense and took herself off. The next morning the wedding guests said to him:

"O Hippocleides," - for they talked like that in those days - "you have danced your bride away."

The young man replied:

"Hippocleides doesn't care."

It is hard to imagine Mr Nicholas Budgen, Mr Richard Shepherd or Sir Teddy Taylor dancing on a table, though Mrs Teresa Gorman might well have a go if the mood took her. But the formerly Whipless Ones are a minority among the Europhobes. Mr William Cash and Mr Iain Duncan Smith like to think of themselves as representative of the more respectable wing. The true figure is nearer 70, which is based on the 66 Conservatives who voted to support Mr Duncan Smith's Ten Minute Rule Bill to curb the powers of the European Court.

He was disingenuous because he said that the Bill would not entail our departure from the European Community (for it is not yet a union, whatever the Euro-enthusiasts may assert in their choice of propagandist words). But if we diluted or refused to accept the decisions of the court we should have to leave. It is as simple as that. Perhaps it would be better if Mr Duncan Smith and others were frank about their objective, as Mr Norman Lamont and Mr Jonathan Aitken are at least prepared to be.

For the Europlast which Mr Major has been applying to his party ever since the Maastricht Treaty is coming badly unstuck. An example of Europlast Man is Sir Bernard Ingham, writing in last Thursday's Daily Express: "In common with Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth, I shall not be flying the blue-star spangled banner today - Euro [officially Europe] Day. Nor shall I be attending the Euro-event to which I have been invited." Later on, however: "[The former Whipless Ones'] suicidal self-indulgence over Europe, when any alternative on offer would be disastrous for Britain, means that they could still do the impossible: chuck away power..."

Well, you cannot have it both ways, even if Kenneth Tynan did once observe that you could have it at least 57 different ways. This is what Mr Major, like Sir Bernard, is trying to do. If the Conservatives really thought they could win, they would collude in the deception. They refuse to do so; though some, such as Mr Lamont, are prepared to go further than others.

In 1964 the Conservative government expected to lose by a larger margin than it did. In 1970 the Labour government was convinced it would win, but lost. In February 1974 the Conservative government thought it would win and lost likewise. In October 1974 the Labour government vainly hoped to increase its majority handsomely, as it had done in 1966. In 1979 Lord Callaghan thought he would lose, but there were many Conservatives who doubted whether the country would ever elect a woman Prime Minister. The woman duly won. She was confident in 1983, though less so in 1987. In 1992 hardly anyone in the government apart from Mr Major thought the Conservatives would win. Today it is only Mr Major. His colleagues sound more and more like the Twickenham crowd.