When the cat's away, the rats start scurrying

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHY prime ministers go abroad as often as they do has always puzzled me. I am even more mystified by their modern practice of taking with them the entire Lobby (or as many members of that organisation whose newspapers are prepared to fork out the cost of the Downing Street package tour). True, their pictures are displayed on television, now getting into aeroplanes, now getting out of them. But they have to put up with a great deal of cheek from the gentlemen of the press. What do they intend to do about an erring backbencher? What is their opinion of the latest indiscretion of a certain minister? Above all, do they intend to resign, or will they wait to be pushed?

What makes it worse is that such questions are usually justified. Prime ministers either choose troubled party times for their overseas expeditions or find that their very absence from the scene has provoked a crisis of sorts. As a news editor of my acquaintance once said to his staff, when the editor (in fact Sir John Junor) had gone off for a few days and there was consequentially some indiscipline in the newsroom: "Just because the cat's away doesn't mean you can behave like a lot of rats."

So it was last week. Hardly had Mr John Major taken his first bite of chocolate cake and sipped his fresh orange juice - for I am informed that the Israelis dispense little else in the way of hospitality - when there was talk that a challenge to him was "certain" in the autumn. The challenger was named as Mr Norman Lamont, no doubt about it, old boy. He would turn himself into that fabulous creature, the stalking horse, as Mr Michael Heseltine had done five years previously (even though Mr Heseltine might not like to be described as such).

On that occasion, Mr Major turned out to be the beneficiary. On whose behalf would Mr Lamont be acting? Why, Mr Jonathan Aitken's, of course. At this point I began to have doubts about the enterprise. Was my informant serious? It seemed that he was. Then I did a quick count of Conservative prime ministers of the present century. Bonar Law, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Lord Home, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and even John Major himself were all unexpected choices. Only Arthur Balfour, Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden were accepted successors.

There is certainly no accepted successor to Mr Major in sight. The surprising choice is still more likely to be, say, Mrs Gillian Shephard than Mr Aitken. It is to be noted that Lord McAlpine, for one (an admirer of Mr Michael Portillo), does not like all this talk. He did not approve of the way Lady Thatcher was jettisoned. Being a man of principle - at any rate, consistency - he does not want Mr Major to be thrown overboard in the same fashion. He wants the electorate to do the job instead.

Historically, there is a good deal to be said for Lord McAlpine's view that the Conservative Party revivifies itself in opposition. In 1945-51 R A Butler laid the foundations for 13 years of government. After 1965 Sir Edward Heath discovered Thatcherism when Lady Thatcher herself was not even a member of the Shadow Cabinet, but lost his nerve after two years in government.

The period after the next election is, however, unlikely to be so productive. The Conservative Party is not in a coolly cerebral mood. It is in the mood to have a fight with somebody: over Europe, Britishness, Englishness, a feeling that something (it does not know quite what) has gone wrong somewhere. And who is to say that, in this respect at least, the Conservative Party is entirely wrong?

In any case, if the party had wanted a Conservative prime minister to enjoy security of tenure until he was defeated at a general election, it could have said so at the time. The time in question was the period immediately after Lady Thatcher's fall. A sub-committee of the 1922 Committee was appointed to consider the leader's election. After some months' deliberation, it did not recommend, as it could have done, any change in the system of annual election. Instead its principal recommendation, which was accepted, was that 10 per cent of Conservative MPs should have to write, requisitioning an election, to the chairman of the committee.

The present number, which is unlikely to increase after the Kinross by- election, is 329. It should not prove difficult to gather together 33 Conservative letter-writers next November. I remain doubtful, however, whether they would append their signatures if they thought they were doing so to please Mr Lamont. Still, in his fashion Mr Lamont - there is no escaping it - remains the Michael Heseltine of 1995. Unlike Mr Heseltine, however, he has not gone out of his way to proclaim his loyalty to his leader: quite the opposite.

There is another important difference between 1990 and 1995. Then Lady Thatcher was deserted by her cabinet and refused to fight on into the second round, even though she could have done. If she had, the second ballot would have been between her and Mr Heseltine: not between Mr Heseltine, Mr Major and Mr Douglas Hurd, which is what took place. In comparable circumstances, Mr Major is likely to prove more obdurate than Lady Thatcher on that occasion. We may be fairly sure that there will be no tears in No 10 from him. He will carry on fighting.

In 1990 there was a desertion but no insurrection. Lady Thatcher had first to take her leave before Mr Major and Mr Hurd were prepared to contest the leadership with Mr Heseltine. Is there likely to be an insurrection before the election? The only minister who is capable of leading one is Mr Kenneth Clarke.

He is a politician with whom the Daily Mail is now obsessed. The other day he mentioned in a hardly reported speech in a remote corner of the land that, if the circumstances happened to be right, he would be prepared to consider a referendum on a single currency. This untypically hesitant utterance formed the basis of the main front-page story, a leading article (the paper welcoming Mr Clarke's alleged conversion to the cause in question) and a whole leader-page article by Mr John Torode, formerly of the Independent. The coverage, I must confess, struck me as excessive.

More recently, not only the Mail but the other Tory tabloids have been devoting a good deal of space to Mr Clarke and his "gaffes". Why, I wonder, do papers which are supposed to have their fingers on the popular pulse continue employing this word? You never hear normal people using it in ordinary conversation, any more than those other words "funk" and "zany". They are newspaper words.

The newspapers have decided that Mr Clarke's stock has fallen, perhaps fatally. I think he will stick to Mr Major not for that reason but because he has no choice. The same applies to others in the party holding very different views. That is why I believe Mr Major will defeat any challenge inaugurated by Mr Lamont, if there is one.