The last Tory prime minister?

The ousting of John Major in a pre-election coup could spell the end of Conservative government
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The Independent Online
John Major might be the last true leader of the Conservative Party; at least, of the Tory party as we have known it this century. That is the proper perspective from which to consider the latest fetid gush of speculation about his future. His steely blandness in the face of journalistic and political manoeuvring comes from the knowledge that if he cannot hold the party together, then probably no one can.

There are always plots and wheezes and alternative candidates. Yes, Michael Heseltine could take over and keep the seat hot for Chris Patten, swaying in by parachute in the autumn of 1997 as the Cathay Pacific jumbo roars in from Hong Kong. Alternatively, yes, just possibly, a Euro-sceptic succession could follow, with, say, John Redwood taking control after the election and the pro-Europeans, though sulking and humiliated, staying in the party to fight on.

But an experienced gambler would expect long odds on either kind of transition. They are too smooth for today's Conservatives to manage. Would Hezza, the white-maned Lion King, be simply allowed to assume the Prime Minister- ship? Many among the rebel right would suspect that there had been a private succession deal arranged between Major, Heseltine and Chris Patten, whatever hot denials tumbled out on the Today programme.

Their suspicion would be founded on at least some firm past history. There is indeed a private cadre of chums, or at least acquaintances, at the core of the party who believe that it belongs to them because they are decent and sensible and patriotic, and that's that. Their mutual understandings and unspoken beliefs are as near as the Conservative Party has to a soul.

This inner core is much diminished as compared to the heydays of the Blue Chip dining club in the Eighties. But one can still envisage a very private strategy meeting including people like Major, Ian Lang, Malcolm Rifkind, Brian Mawhinney, David Davis, possibly Lord Cranbourne. The exact membership of an undeclared and unofficial inner core is hard to gauge. But the Tory party has always had one; the day it disappears, so will the party.

There are two aspects of the stitch-up theory which I find hard to envisage. The first is that such an inner core, to which Michael Heseltine has never really belonged, would agree that Major must now go and Hezza must take over. The second is that, if they did reluctantly agree that this should happen, they would get their way.

Why would the right assent to a bloodless coup by Tory centrists, when they think they are winning the whole darned party? Why would John Redwood allow that to happen? He has been running a remarkable personal campaign outside government, akin only to that of Heseltine himself in the Thatcher years.

He has reinvented himself in a most remarkable way. A few years ago, he was a bloodless, monochrome cabinet minister, the least well-known of the "bastard" trio. He was known to be clever but supercilious and terminally uncharismatic. Since leaving office, however, and challenging Major last summer, Redwood has grown steadily in stature. He is having fun. He is pouring out ideas and provocations. Not a Giant Redwood, then, but at least quite a big Redwood. Why would he forget it all to help Heseltine succeed? I think he wouldn't.

If Major resigned this weekend and threw his support behind the Deputy Prime Minister, then the right would fight. Could the Conservative government, so badly depleted in its majority and its sense of purpose, survive a leadership battle? We would have to start preparing for a general election in, say, June. Given the state of the polls, that's a funny kind of Tory survival strategy.

But the other scenario for a smooth Tory hand-over is equally hard to envisage, for different reasons. Whether Major stays or not, the anti- EU Tories cannot simply take the party over, for the same reason as the Bennites could never have successfully taken over the Labour Party in the early Eighties. There are too many important people and interests who wouldn't stand for it.

After a bitter and traumatic leadership contest and party conference, they would go. Though I've said it before, this bears repeating: a Conservative Party minus Kenneth Clarke, Heseltine, all the other pro-European MPs, and missing the exporting and business interests that back them would not be the Conservative Party. Whatever it called itself, it would be a lesser thing and a far less plausible party of government.

This is momentous stuff for everyone on the right of politics to think about. As the results of the local elections start to flow into BBC and ITN computers tonight there will be many people wishing for a maximum Tory rout. In the media, we will of course be looking for the best story possible; in this context, "best" means "biggest Government defeat". The position of the Opposition parties goes without saying.

But in the bowels of the Conservative Party itself there will be hundreds of rebels and romantics who will hug themselves with silent delight if the local electoral map turns red and yellow, who will grin with grim pleasure at every lurch of Peter Snow's swingometer. "Ah," they will say, "Now comes the great chance. Now we can get rid of that dreary, prevaricating no-hoper at last. We can win the European battle, get Goldsmith off our backs and raise the Union Jack against Labour in the coming election."

They are as nutty as a lorryload of Sunpat, the lot of them. Going for Major now is a recipe not for the revival of the Conservative Party but for its defeat and perhaps its disintegration. Once there was a time when this remarkable organisation had the central intelligence, the nervous system, which enabled it to shed one leader and grow another without damage. But because of the European question, that time has passed. Today it has an entirely different sort of nervous system, a brittle network of anxiety and suspicion.

This country knows John Major's faults. He is not a Disraeli in his speech, nor a Churchill in courage, nor a Thatcher in his sense of direction. He doesn't have the wit of a Macmillan or the astute sense of necessary political reform that marked out Lord Salisbury. (Had he had that sense, he would not have allowed the liberty of local government to be so eroded that elections, such as today's, become merely a grand opinion-poll on the performance of national government. In that way, as in others, Major is part author of his own misfortunes.)

But he is the best Prime Minister the party has got. Since that is a sneer, let me amend it: he is the Tory politician with the best chance of holding the party together and carrying it through the election campaign in a way that will allow it to be handed on to a new leadership as a single, plausible project. Many commentators, including some Tory MPs, believe the time has already passed for that project and that the Tories would be better to split.

Major, self-evidently, doesn't agree. He has expended his political energy over the past six years trying to hold the Tories together. If, in a mood of self-destructive hysteria over the next few weeks, he ceases to be party leader, then there is a real chance that he will indeed be the last Conservative leader of all.