Why Major decided to turn and fight

The Prime Minister says he is a gambler by instinct. But this week's move was no reckless fancy. Donald Macintyre reports
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Number 13 Cowley Street, London SW1, the home of the fairly obscure former MP Sir Neil Thorne, now enters the list of famous political addresses. Yesterday, using telephone lines newly installed by BT, undeterred by the lack of a declared opponent, and scarcely giving themselves time to watch Douglas Hurd's resignation press conference on Sky TV, the MPs and ministers John Major really trusts got down to the solid work of compiling target lists, identifying worried MPs in marginal constituencies, and taking calls from volunteers offering help.

Few on Mr Major's team doubt that the contest will happen; and they are determined to be as successful as his team were in 1990 (many of the personnel are the same). But even if they fail, it is still just possible that John Major will not regret the decision he announced on Thursday. "He knows what the risks are," said one ally yesterday. "But he also thinks the worst of all possible worlds would have been to let things go on as they were." Best, in other words, to fight and win. But better to fight and lose than not to fight at all.

Major had decided by Wednesday night. As it happened, Christopher Meyer, his press secretary, was hosting a dinner for regional newspaper editors and the Prime Minister joined them for coffee. He was in a relaxed mood and combative about what he bluntly called the "soap opera" of Westminster. The editors were struck by the confidence - the passion, almost - of Mr Major's tone. They knew nothing at the time, of course, but several realised with hindsight that he must already have made his decision.

The editors were right. But the resignation tactic had a much longer genesis than has been generally appreciated. Mr Major had first very tentatively canvassed the idea in his immediate circle as long ago as last year, after the 1994 local elections and the gruesome row over EU Qualified Majority Voting, in which Major excited expectations of a tough stand and was then forced into retreat. But by the summer the pressure, and fears of a November leadership contest, had eased a little, partly because the European election defeats in June stopped just short of total catastrophe.Curiously, Mr Major then did something which gave the lie to the idea that he was an incurably cautious politician. Against strong Foreign Office advice, and with the prospect of total isolation in Europe, he decided to veto Jean-Luc Dehaene as EU President. To observe that the veto resulted in the Belgian Prime Minister's replacement by the equally centralist Jacques Santer is to miss the point: the veto established that Britain was not prepared to go along with a Franco-German stitch-up. "It helped to buy him several months of relative peace in the party," said one Major insider yesterday. "And it illustrates that John Major has a much more mercurial temperament than most people realise." The vicious cycle of the 1994-5 parliamentary session had both similarities to, and differences from, the previous one. The agitation from the die-hard anti-Europeans started earlier, and was much more serious, resulting in open Commons rebellion. And it also brought an ignominious defeat at the hands of the "whipless" rebels. But it was the local elections which seriously started to destabilise the leadership. As mainstream MPs computed, ward by ward, what the results meant for themselves, they began to panic, lending credence to the idea that the constituency for a challenge might go wider than a small gang of Europhobe irreconcilables. And all this against a constant background of criticism by what one Major loyalist pointedly said last week "used to be the tory press."

Against this background, Lady Thatcher's interviews to coincide with publication of her book and then the bruising encounter with the Fresh Start group of last Tuesday put Major in one of his darkest moods yet. It was not only that the Fresh Start meeting was almost uniformly unpleasant; it was also, in a sense, Major's own fault. Even Cabinet loyalists shook their heads at the wisdom of the Prime Minister inviting 50 of his fiercest critics to his own room at the Commons and then putting up with open rudeness. "I'd have to told them to f-off," said one minister crisply yesterday.

By the time Major arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia for the G7 summit he was already coming to the conclusion that something had to be done. He floated this view with one or two of his closest officials. By this time he had also begun to discuss options with Douglas Hurd: indeed Hurd is being credited widely in Whitehall with urging him to stand down and invite a contest. But in fact Hurd was probably doing little more than pressing him to trust his own instincts and adopt a course that had been turning around in his mind for several weeks. And it wasn't until he came back from Halifax that he began to try out the idea with some close political friends within and outside the Government. A long, sombre talk with Sir Patrick Mayhew resulted in Mayhew's letter to the Times warning that the "commotion" against Major was threatening the Northern Ireland peace process.

"Don't think this was just a case of Major sitting round with a few policy wonks over miniatures of Benedictine and dreaming up a wheeze," cautioned one Tory adviser yesterday. Indeed, two of the most influential figures appear to have been his wife, Norma, and Lord Whitelaw, who paid one of his infrequent, discreet, but always significant visits to Downing Street last week. "Norma is very much in the 'be bold' camp," explained one insider yesterday. "Don't underestimate her importance."

By the time the Prime Minister met the editors, he was not only settled on the momentous step he would take the next day, but he had already individually told a number of ministers that he would definitely stand down: Douglas Hurd, Kenneth Clarke, Brian Mawhinney, Ian Lang and Tony Newton. Robert Hughes - an old friend who was forced to leave his ministerial job because of an extra-marital affair, and now a key member of Major's campaign team - was given a strong indication on Tuesday.

Only some ministers were told directly. One reason for John Redwood's coolness yesterday was that he was irritated to be informed as late as Thursday afternoon by Michael Howard of a tactic which he would have liked to discuss with Major, because he had severe reservations. And at a pre- breakfast meeting on Thursday Major gathered in his flat a group of most of those he had already consulted: Lang, Newton, Jeremy Hanley, his former PPS Sir Graham Bright, John Ward, his present one, Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, Howell James, his political secretary, and Lord Cranborne. After breakfast Cranborne chaired what was, in effect, the first campaign meeting. Major himself talked to Douglas Hurd about his imminent departure, leaving the final timing up to the Foreign Secretary.

Nearly four years ago, before the general election, John Major was talking to a small group of people at a Downing Street reception. He had not long since taken office, and was enjoying something of a honeymoon. The only complaint was that he was, perhaps, just a shade grey. "I'm a gambler by instinct," he told an incredulous guest. "Just watch me." Yesterday, after Major had taken his biggest gamble yet, one senior Tory recalled the famous words of Lord Randolph Churchill when he resigned from the Treasury: "Pray to God it's an ace and not a two."