Whence will come the fatal blow?: As Thatcherites talk openly of the end for John Major, Andrew Marr finds conflict among the plotters

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The Independent Online
ONE of Mr Major's most consistent supporters is mooching in a Commons corridor. The Lamont speech will fade quickly, no serious challenge will come this year. But then an almost visible question mark erupts over his head. He pauses and muses of the anti-Major rebels: 'Of course, what we mustn't forget is that some of these guys are seriously out to lunch. I mean, uncontrollable . . .'

There's a gloomy pause. Then he continues: 'I mean, I just think that J Major represents almost everything that is decent about middle England, and he happens to be bloody good at the job. Really bloody, bloody good. If a man like that is going to be brought down by pricks like him (thumb gestures at young rebel Member, passing pinkly by) or by Rupert Murdoch . . .' (Second gloomy pause)

If Mr Major can rely on friends like him, then we have exaggerated the crisis. But just along the corridor, past three or four knots of sweating, whispering Tory backbenchers, another senior MP is loitering. He says: 'Major's finished. He's bloody useless. Lamont may have been bitter, but he did the party a service in saying what needed to be said. We keep giving Major last chances, and he keeps fumbling them. The sooner he's finished off, the better.'

By trawling the lobbies, bars and terraces of Westminster, where fetid gossip hangs in the sticky air, it is possible to collect virtually every opinion possible on the Prime Minister and his future. Once, in a less frenetic age, it would have been possible to grade each Tory backbench gossiper - who counts, who matters, who speaks for whom - and come to a reasonable assessment of the depth of the crisis.

Once, there were well-understood hierarchies among Conservative parliamentarians. In the days of Macmillan's 'little local difficulty', quoted by Mr Major yesterday, there were phalanxes of backbench knights who acted as sergeant-majors for party opinion. Solid men who had had a good war met in St James's Street clubs and their collective view was decisive: cabinet ministers could take reliable soundings.

Junior parliamentarians knew their place. There were understood chains of command through the 1922 Committee of backbenchers and the Carlton Club. Right at the top, aristocratic grandees and the most senior ministers formed the 'magic circle' that Iain Macleod bitterly complained of in 1963. There was order.

No longer. In the Tory party, as in England, old hierarchies have crumbled into a new, media-dominated, less deferential age. The arrival of a system in 1965 that allowed backbenchers to challenge the leader and bring him or her down broke the magic circle. The 1922 Committee chairman, currently Sir Marcus Fox, has extraordinary power in initiating or stifling such a challenge. But the '22' itself is no longer the only important organisation of Tory MPs.

The left-right rivalries of the Thatcher years threw up a wide range of alternative groups, ranging from influential and ideological organisations, such as the right-wing 92 Group, to lesser dining-clubs. The party is becoming fragmented into groups and grouplets, the Tories' answer to fissiparous Trotskyism. If a move against Mr Major starts, it will begin not among 1922 Committee grandees, but among dissidents who already have their own organisations.

If matters were merely as complicated as that, a pattern of victories or defeats, loyalists versus dissidents, would soon emerge. But alongside the organised groups is a gaggle, perhaps 25-strong, of people who have become semi-professional dissidents. They have defied the whips so often that the whips have no realistic threats to make any more.

These dissidents have discovered that rebellion brings exhilarating doses of the oxygen of publicity, endless five-minute walks to the BBC and ITN offices just along the Embankment. They become, in their own little way, people of some importance. They are noticed in the street. Some local parties are, no doubt, rather flattered that their MPs are becoming nationally known, even as principled rebels. They have become an anarchic, unpredictable source of instability and rumour. Which way will they jump if a dump-Major movement gets under way? We can guess. But who controls them, who speaks for them? Nobody. The old order changeth, the traditional disciplines have gone.

These deep changes in the texture of the Tory party in Parliament mean that most attempts to explain today's drama by reference to previous leadership crises - Bonar Law, Eden, Macmillan, Heath, even Thatcher - are doomed to failure. This is a different party playing by different rules. Who are today's 'men in grey suits' whose knock on the door would signal Mr Major's end? Only the anonymous 34 who might write letters to Sir Marcus demanding a leadership contest.

Should the Chief Whip, Richard Ryder, or the Party chairman, Sir Norman Fowler, go to Mr Major and tell him to go, then, probably, he would go. But these two men are so deeply and personally committed to the Prime Minister's survival that it is almost impossible to imagine them doing this. They have been with him, day after day, plotting this retreat, that compromise.

So where will the attack come from? Thatcherite dissidents find a pattern. The big political names, with the sole exception of Kenneth Clarke, have fallen away from the Prime Minister. They are all in opposition, mostly in exile in the Lords. The romantics have gone.

Mr Major is left with only the bureaucrats around him. Sir Norman Fowler, co-author of Mr Lamont's fall, whose vicious attack on the former Chancellor sounded like panic. Mr Ryder, shrewd, tough, but essentially private. Sarah Hogg, head of Mr Major's policy unit, but also his gatekeeper, confidant, personal adviser and friend. Regarded by many ministers as the second-most important person in the Government, she has become feared and, inevitably, her huge power is resented: 'The Marcia Falkender to Major's Wilson'.

In this hostile analysis, Mr Major's failures at the dispatch box and his lack of vision are complemented by grey and bureaucratic advisers. The core is shrivelling. By next spring at the latest, when more local elections and the European elections have confirmed his losing streak, the party will no longer be able to tolerate this. A challenge will come from the Thatcherite right, and will be quickly taken up by the disillusioned centre- ground in the party. An anti-Major consensus will slowly unite the fragmented groups and factions.

Eventually, this will be channelled through the 1922 Committee. Various more or less civilised options will be conveyed to Mr Major. He might be offered the Foreign Office, either making way for Douglas Hurd as a compromise candidate, or Mr Clarke as the only available election-winner. If he refuses to go, he will be humiliated in a ballot.

All that, remember, is what the Thatcherites say. So far, the Tory loyalists are hopelessly disorganised and much less vocal than the dissident right, though they are still the majority. Mr Major's best hope of survival is that his friends now organise the centre of the party on his behalf in the weeks and months ahead. They will have to topple right-wingers from key positions on backbench groups, out- gabble Eurosceptics on television, discredit those who currently pose as the leaders of Tory backbench opinion. It is a formidable job.

The Prime Minister believes his critics are only a noisy, well-organised splinter of the party. They are rather more than that now. But, in any case, they are dominating events, shaping the agenda, driving this affair towards a bloody conclusion. If the loyalists are to save Mr Major they will have to fight desperately hard, and soon. Civil war in the party? Not us, said the 1922 Committee last night. But they were buckling on their armour and sharpening their knives as they said it.

(Photograph omitted)