Victory for a true blue gambler

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 July, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 July, 1995, 12:00am

HE chanced everything, and came up trumps. John Major could have lost it all this week, but his gamble paid off.

So, for the moment at least, Britain's Prime Minister is on a roll. After winning the party leadership vote on Tuesday night, he promptly reshuffled his cabinet, rewarded the loyalty of his most charismatic Conservative, Michael Heseltine, by promoting him to the post of deputy prime minister, and installed the compatible Malcolm Rifkind at the Foreign Office.

Hong Kong may raise its eyebrows at the appointment of the sacked party chairman, Jeremy Hanley, as the junior minister in charge of the territory's affairs, but Mr Major clearly feels he has the people he wants round him as he tries to restore the Conservatives' fortunes in the run-up to the next general election, due by the spring of 1997.

To bolster his good spirits, there is strong talk in London of an early cut in the cost of borrowing for Britain's millions of homeowners; sterling is up; and on Friday the Financial Times stocks index rose by 58 points. The City and the Tories ended the week in party mood.

Labour leader Tony Blair has been quiet and The Daily Telegraph, one of the leading Conservative newspapers which urged MPs to get rid of the Prime Minister, offered him an editorial bouquet.

The day after Mr Major's victory, many people expected a conciliatory Mr Major to placate the right-wing of the party and their 89 votes for his challenger, John Redwood. One suggestion was that he would offer a new ministerial post to Mr Redwood, who resigned to fight for the leadership.

Mr Major, it was thought, would bid for party unity. He had advanced through the offices of British government - as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary - by treading carefully. It seemed in character for him to do so again.

Not a bit of it. Showing the tough streak that has been hidden beneath his public personality, John Major used his victory to isolate his right-wing critics. He had no choice about retaining the Thatcherite heir, Michael Portillo, who had expressed his loyalty to the Prime Minister before Tuesday's vote. But he moved Mr Portillo to Defence, which is a tricky ministry as Britain cuts down on its military commitments and which is less involved in daily politics than his previous post as Employment Secretary.

The sole right-wingers to be brought into the Cabinet (and they were pro-Major in the leadership battle) were Michael Forsyth in Scotland and William Hague in Wales. While both jobs are important in Scotland and Wales, in Westminster terms the two men are left on the Celtic fringes of British politics.

Mr Major's reshuffle reflected the change in the balance of his support and the split on the right between those who would remain loyal and those who were disaffected and backed John Redwood. The latter are now extremely isolated, vanishing into the distance fast and some risking de-selection as candidates for the next election.

It may have taken five years, but John Major now appears to have at last created a Cabinet in his own political image. After Labour had stolen some of the Tories' clothes through its cutting of the powers of the unions, denunciation of nationalisation and recognition of the markets, there were Conservative cries to put 'clear blue water' between Britain's two main parties. Everybody thought that meant a swing to the right. This week, the move has been back towards the centre.

Mr Major calculates that he can now exploit the division of his right-wing opponents, and that he has nothing to fear from a backlash. In his first statement since taking up his new post, Michael Heseltine made it clear there would be no concessions to the right, saying 'the party doesn't want that; the country wouldn't tolerate it'. The first indication of the new public mood came in a poll which showed that Mr Major's personal standing towards the end of the contest had gone up to 27 per cent. This is still low but it shows a rise of seven points in 12 days and is higher than at any time since 1992 when he led the party to its fourth successive election victory. At the same time, Labour's 39 per cent lead over the Tories has dropped to 31 points. Post-victory, post-new Cabinet polls are likely to show further improvements.

But there are still loud notes of caution to sound for the Prime Minister. A Major victory was what Labour's Tony Blair had wanted in the hope that the Tories would not be able to heal their wounds, and would merely place sticking plaster over them under their reprieved leader.

Mr Major has a long way to go to turn those polls around and there will be many who simply want a change at the general election after 18 years of Conservatism. But if he can be as clever with policies and decisions over the next two years as he was in calling his opponents' bluff, then John Major has given himself a fighting chance.