They don't know what to do, think or say. So they sit and speculate, which is the least fruitful pastime of all. Split a second and you find the mood's changed. Solid parliamentarians who say they know what's going to happen as they take their first sip of lager have thought of a dozen reasons why it won't by the time they are halfway down the glass. In a secret ballot of frenzied liars, it is not possible to plan any outcome.
Underlying all the factions, however, are desperate, romantic dreams of freedom. John Major dreams of being freed from the clawing, wretched succubi of the past few years, of breaking clear into a new phase of true leadership. I do not think this will happen.
Meanwhile, the supporters of John Redwood (openly) and Michael Portillo (covertly) dream of freeing their whole party from its recent history and actions. They dream of breaking into a new politics in which strong- jawed, clean-limbed leaders sing out simple, patriotic themes as they slash back taxes and bureaucracy. This will not happen, either.
First Major. Unless he wins on the first ballot with a convincing vote - Redwood votes and abstentions being well below 100 - he cannot draw a line under this. Unless Redwood is broken, then he will emerge as the leader of a organised and dissident neo-Thatcherite faction, constantly sniping at the remnants of the Government until the next election. Major would find that, after his grand gesture, things were the same as before - only worse.
As compared with mid-June, the Conservative Party in mid-July would have merely hardened its internal battlelines. Important relationships in Cabinet would have been further damaged. The parliamentary party would have said things to itself and the country that could not easily be unsaid. The slogan of the Redwood campaign, for instance, is "no change means no chance". There's one for the Opposition scrapbook.
So Major's people, who were working the corridors and terraces hard last night, have a clear strategy. They know that there is one big argument against him, being used by Tory MPs, which is that he cannot win the general election for them. In response, they are accumulating and spreading all the smaller arguments against a second ballot.
These have some force. Major's people are telling pro-Portillo right- wingers that their man has the leadership for the asking after the next election; why provoke a more complicated fight now with the "stalking Dalek"? Simultaneously, they are asking Heseltine supporters if they really want to risk their beloved party falling into the hands of that pouting madman Portillo. (Well, if you are easily shocked, you shouldn't be reading the politics.)
Above all, they are telling the dazed and uncommitted MPs that if they don't close this thing down next Tuesday, the Government may collapse. No right-winger would be able to command a secure parliamentary majority, they say. Going on with a second or third ballot would be horrible - who knows what would happen?
This strategy can work, though its logic is weakest for those MPs who think Heseltine would be a better leader, and think they can get him in before the recess. But if Major does win on the first ballot, these will be the reasons why.
In that case, he would move quickly to try to persuade the 1922 Committee of all Tory backbenchers to change its rules, blocking off a contest in November. There would be demands for loyalty oaths all round, one final pull together as the general election hoves into view. But if Major's win is unconvincing, then he may face not only the neo-Thatcherite split with Redwood at its head, but also an ultimatum from members of his Cabinet.
This was described by one MP at the heart of the Tory machine as the ultimate disaster, leading to a crisis of governability. It is what Labour is hoping for; it is what Heseltine and Portillo, their eyes on a second ballot, will move to prevent. All in all, Major needs to smash the Redwood challenge; yesterday this looked unlikely; and thus his dream of escaping in one bound seems unlikely, too.
It is, however, a rather innocent and personal fantasy, compared to the dream among his right-wing challengers of an escape into a new era of neo-Thatcherism in government. Its rhetoric implies that there are cost- free choices to be made; that taxation can be cut back dramatically without that producing grubbier cities, worse roads, schools and hospitals, lower social benefits; that Europeans can be repulsed without any damage to our interests. This is politics with no downsides - a world without shadows.
John Redwood, being an honest man, has had to grapple with the implausibility of this fantasy world. His manifesto is verbally rousing but, on close inspection, proves to contain few dramatic breaks.
The one exception is his suggestion that pounds 5bn could be lopped off spending without the public noticing. But this is the sort of thing populists have promised since the dawn of democratic time, and failed to deliver for just as long. Redwood's promised new mechanism for reversing public spending turned out yesterday to be simply exhortation. He plans to shout more loudly at Michael Heseltine during cabinet meetings.
This may produce instant billions in savings; but it seems a touch unlikely. Then again, on crime, his rhetoric was rousingly fierce. But his core proposal turned out to be for more video cameras. This is probably a good idea. But it hardly amounts to a revolutionary battle cry. Political populism, which comes in simple shapes and primary colours, always ends up smudged and muddied by the experiences of office. The Redwood manifesto rams this truth home again and again.
Most Tory MPs won't notice his policy ideas anyway. Every day, a hundred or so hacks are turning up for a press conference at which various Redwood wheezes are discussed. Cameras roll, notebooks fill with spidery loops and dashes; photocopies of the Redwood text are handed round.
But the real electorate, the agonised, maddened MPs, don't care. They are thinking only: "What is safe for me? How may I salvage the best chance of retaining my seat from this shipwreck of a party? How can I balance the danger of continuing this leadership contest against the danger of going on with a leader as uncharismatic as John Major? Hezza would be a bit of class. But can we afford the price tag?'' Policy documents are as irrelevant to this as, well, as the views of party workers.
I started by arguing that both the Prime Minister and his opponents were fantasising about freeing themselves and escaping into a simpler world - which happens, for various reasons, to be unavailable. But there is something else. It is starting to feel as if the Conservative Party, in its heart of hearts, is now dreaming of opposition, of escaping altogether from the compromises and routines of national office. This is a special kind of dream. It is the dream which, once dreamt, always comes true.Reuse content