The FO encircled and about to fall

For the first time since we joined the EU, the next Foreign Secretary c ould be a Euro-sceptic
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The Independent Online
Will the Foreign Office fall? It still goes without saying in most Tory circles that Douglas Hurd has his job for as long as he wants it. But the Tory right, in drawing up its peace proposals for Downing Street, badly wants a Euro-sceptic in the j ob well ahead of next year's intergovernmental conference. And it is no longer obvious that John Major will say no.

A campaign for a right-winger to replace Hurd is starting to absorb the energies of the hyperactive and confident Euro-sceptics, including some who were recently plotting to get rid of Major himself. Pro-European ministers have calmly assumed that the Foreign Secretaryship "must'' go to one of themselves: it always does.

Certainly, anything else would be a revolution at the Foreign Office. When was the last time the marble staircases and frescoed walls of the FO were placed under the control of a nationalistic right-winger? Alec Douglas-Home in 1960? Hardly. Halifax in 1

938? Possibly. Lord Curzon in 1919? Certainly.

At any rate, the Euro-hostile and Euro-sceptical Tories have not had their man in the key job at any time since "the Common Market'' first became an issue. The Foreign Office survived the Thatcher revolution virtually unscathed and unabashed; it remains far more like its pre-Thatcher self than, for instance, the Treasury. The arrival of a right-winger now would make many key mandarins ... well, it would make them do whatever mandarins do when they are very upset.

Hurd has been playing his cards close to his chest, balancing gossip about his going with hints that he may not. But this should not necessarily be read as a decision to stay beyond the summer. He would naturally be keen to ensure that his retirement from King Charles Street came, in the end, as a surprise. That would not only stop him having to hop on as a lame duck Foreign Secretary, it would also make it harder for the Tory right to lobby No 10 about his replacement.

There is just the whiff of a handover in the air. The Chequers meeting at the beginning of the year, at which the Prime Minister and a few senior ministers brainstormed about Britain's place in the world, and the forthcoming public discussion of the sametopic at a joint Chatham House-Foreign Office event in March, may be Hurd's attempt to set his own mark on the foreign policy agenda before quitting - to tie the tiller, as it were.

MPs have also noted that the appointment of the bone-dry minister David Davis, rather than an official, to handle the early discussions in the run-up to the European IGC would allow political continuity if Hurd did go.

A quick succession would favour the continuity candidates - Sir Paddy Mayhew and Malcolm Rifkind being the most often cited, though Ian Lang is also mentioned. Despite past difficulties over Bosnia, Rifkind would be greeted with undisguised relief in theForeign Office itself - he was a junior minister there in the early Thatcher years, and did well.

But he is also a pro-European with a deep knowledge of the Community. In the eyes of the hard right, this makes him a threat. They would regard his appointment as a serious provocation and are already lobbying against him. "There would be no chance of binding the wounds then,'' says one MP.

So whom do they suggest instead?The most prominent name being touted is Michael Howard, though the Home Secretary's terrible past year would have to be redeemed first: even right-wing ministers talk about him as being likelier for demotion than promotion, and the comments of senior left-wingers about the idea are unprintable in a family newspaper.

It was Howard, however, who spoke for the right wing of the party during the Maastricht negotiations when Major was trying to decide how far he could go without splitting the party; Howard's people sell him as a profound Euro-sceptic, who has also been conspicuously loyal to Major.

The next name being talked about is Jonathan Aitken. His close Middle Eastern connections would be cited against him. But Aitken has been very useful to Major recently. As an old friend of Euro-sceptic rebels, and still trusted by them, he is clearly being used as an important go-between. More generally, he is touted by Major loyalists as a right-wing antidote to Michael Portillo, who seems to be regarded by the Prime Minister as more of a threat.

Right-wingers leading the muttering-attack on Hurd and Rifkind put forward Portillo and Peter Lilley as candidates for the Foreign Office. One of the harmless entertainments of a pundit's life is to suggest either name to FCO mandarins in a tone of innocent inquiry and listen to the detonations of incoherent, spluttering disbelief that result. And, in truth, it seems most unlikely that Major would contemplate appointing an eminent "bastard'' to such a powerful position.

Yet the right is in the driving seat as never before and Major is likely to be driven to concede more. Both the whipless rebels and their colleagues still inside the parliamentary party are drawing up lists of changes in policy which they will present asrequirements for a united party in the run-up to the election. (In other cultures, this is known as extortion.)

They want Major to go further still in ruling out a single currency before 1999, and preferably ever; and to give them a pledge on the repatriation of powers from the EU. The Foreign Office and the Treasury are adamant that Major won't move; the anti-Europeans are insistent that he must. This is where the core argument in the party has moved. Straddling it is the question of a possible replacement for Hurd - one thing Major cannot fudge, one choice that sends out a clear and irrevocable message.

Yesterday morning Hurd was trying to reassure three dozen pro-European MPs that the right had not swamped the Government's agenda, that the old and uneasy balance was still there. Some were far from convinced. And at the very same time, the agitation to have Hurd replaced with a Euro-sceptic was bubbling in the Commons.

It would mark the Tory nationalists' greatest victory since we joined the Common Market. It would be a moment of truth for the Tory party, too: what would supporters of a single currency, and the vast array of exporters and unheard pro-European Tories inthe constituencies do then? How would the City react to the fall of the FO?

If this vaguely conjures up the image of General Gordon on the steps at Khartoum surrounded by the dervish spears, then all one can say is that this is rather how it feels to some in the Foreign Office, too. Hurd himself must be acutely aware of the struggle his departure would trigger. He knows that if he stays, there is more desperately hard pounding ahead - not only the IGC, with all the thankless manoeuvering that will mean, but the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, too.

For a man who turns 65 this year and has a youngish family, it is not a happy prospect. But neither is the other.