Tired Tory eyes alight on Shere Khan

Spring is coming, MPs' thoughts turn to a leadership challenge. And one man sits silently waiting
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The Independent Online
Here we go again. Yes, it's Merrie Election Fever in ye House of Common People. The "Make Michael Heseltine King of England'' campaign is rolling once more. Tony Blair was right to warn yesterday that the Conservatives might yet knife John Major and go for an earlier-than-expected election. Such things are common gossip in the fetid corridors and grimy taverns of Westminster.

As Major himself points out, we have been here before. The story about an imminent dumping of the Prime Minister has become an annual part of the political year which, like spring itself, comes earlier each twelvemonth. And yet Major remains chirpily undumped and in office. Why should things be different this time?

For one thing, there is a mood of something like resignation in government that there will be a leadership challenge. The rebellious right have their list of 32 MPs who say they will put their names down for a challenge. It is one thing to promise your name now, and another formally to sign the Declaration of Disloyalty in the autumn. But cabinet ministers, depressed at the prospect of a challenge, now seem to think it will come.

Why do they believe this? It is less a matter of head-counting rebels than a realistic feeling about the general political mood. Everyone knows things cannot carry on this way. There is little legislation; foreign policy aside, the administration is drifting. Ministers bitch, viciously, about one another, and are mostly right to do so. No 10 is reduced to setting up - wait for it - a new cabinet committee to take a "strategic view'' of the next two years. The local elections and more terrible polls and the Scottish by-election are all piling up. The morbidity of Conservative MPs casts a pall over the longer term.

The anti-Europeans, meanwhile, sensing that the force is with them, keep pushing, keep strengthening their language and their list of demands. Now they don't want warm words about a referendum - they want the Chancellor's head.

In this respect, Mr Major himself is culpable for the antics of George Gardiner, the would-be political assassin of Kenneth Clarke. Politics abhors a vacuum. If the Prime Minister and his allies are not daily setting a political agenda, then other people will. Major seemed to think that the European argument could be settled rationally, by producing a compromise policy and then urging everyone to shake hands. This cannot be. We are witnessing a savage power struggle, a war in a party that is losing the will to govern, fought out between irreconcilable enemies.

Such struggles are not susceptible to arbitration. They can be kept in check only by fear, either of the leader's anger or electoral annihilation. Today, no one in the Conservative Party fears John Major. And rather few of them seem to fear defeat at the polls either. So, despite the strong rational case against its existence, the struggle, with a mind of its own, goes on.

As to who would stand against Major, there are various candidates, including Norman Lamont. But this hardly matters. The first question, as with Margaret Thatcher in 1989 and then a year later, would be how many votes were cast for the Prime Minister, how many against, and how many were not cast at all. Ominously for Mr Major, his cabinet colleagues readily discuss the number of votes below which he would be finished.

For the plotters, the more substantial question is, of course, who would replace him. Michael Portillo is the man most of them want; but they see that Portillo might be too strong meat for an undefeated party. On the other side, Kenneth Clarke is still a hero to people on the left. But he has had a terrible few weeks and has been warned by friends that he would get an embarrassing vote if he stood as leader now. Hence the sudden, glittering everywhereness of the words "Michael Heseltine''. From the timely information in the Sun that his wife Anne is "110 per cent behind Michael in his desire to be prime minister'' to the mutterings of numerous MPs, ministers and sidekicks, it's that man again.

What, you may ask, is Shere Khan himself doing to advance his cause? I have been studying the question. He is doing nothing. He is saying nothing. He seems to be briefing no one. He rarely makes speeches and when he does, he makes damn sure they are bad speeches. Far from roaring, he barely cheeps. He is sitting modestly at his desk - well, all right, not modestly, but quietly, anyway - dispatching Her Majesty's business in an effective manner. Nothing more.

For he doesn't have to do anything. Indeed, doing anything would be counter- productive. If his many enemies in the party are so desperate that they are willing to destroy Major and then call on him to stand, then they will do so, and, naturally, he will do so, and Anne will be 110 per cent chipper about the whole business.

At which point, the reader may pause and wonder about the small problem the right still has: this Heseltine has not recanted on Europe. He is one of the enemy, really. Surely, the temporising, hyper-careful Major is better than him?

The right are certainly in a quandary. They are trying to weigh in the balance the awfulness of Heseltine's views, as they see them, with the horror of electoral slaughter under Major if things go on like this. (A third possibility, that they could just belt up and try and let the Prime Minister win, does not seem to have occurred to them.)

Hezza, they reckon, could stop Labour taking so many Tory seats that the party would be out of power for a decade. He could limit the damage. It would be a great disadvantage that the timing would give him influence over the European intergovernmental conference; but there would probably be an early election anyway. Heseltine, having done his stuff and received the thanks of a grateful party, would hand over to Portillo. So the thinking goes.

But then it goes a little further, and out comes a horrible, a truly fearful, thought. What if the old bugger won? What if Heseltine, having been put in to minimise the defeat, was so disobliging as to achieve a fifth Tory victory against all odds? What if rampant Hezza-mania landed the Conservative Party with another term in office under the same Europhile cabinet? It is a Euro-dissident nightmare.

It is also, perhaps, so unlikely that it will be dismissed, including by the Euro-dissidents themselves and the challenge will go ahead anyway. A change in the prime ministership this year is looking more probable than it did.

What I find difficult to believe is that it would actually help the Conservatives. It is they in their collective, quarrelsome trauma who are the problem, not their leader. To put it another way: drafting Heseltine might work - but only if the Tory leadership was able to ditch the current party and choose a new one first.