John Major spent as much time in office watching his back as governing. His crushing defeat last week, followed by his announced resignation as Conservative party leader “after a reasonably brief” period, merely brought a long-running and bitter fight for succession into the open.
The struggle to become Britain’s opposition leader is more than a personality contest. The Tories are deeply split over European integration, and the potential candidates reflect it. Two years ago, the anti-Europe faction coalesced around John Redwood, 45, when he resigned from the cabinet to challenge Major on the slogan.“No change, no chance." Redwood lost, hampered by a speaking style as lively as voice-mail instructions. But now, as one of the party's few senior survivors, Redwood is back in the game.
Labour’s blowout claimed several possible anti-Europe candidates, since only sitting MPs are eligible to run or vote for leader. The biggest leadership roadkill was the
openly eager ex-defence minister Michael Portillo. Leading the charge of the so-called Euroskeptics will probably be outgoing home secretary Michael Howard, 55, a ferocious law-and-order hardliner who has been reprimanded several times by European and British judges for curtailing civil liberties. A
key rival may be former Welsh secretary William Hague, 36, known as the youngest old fogy in the party. Former ministers Stephen Dorrell, 45, and Peter Lilley,
53, also spent the last months building reputations as cantankerous British bulldogs.
Those less hostile to Europe will find the playing field steeply slañted. The former chancellor of the exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, 56, is widely regarded as the smartest, ablest and most personable politician in the Tory ranks, and he was the first to declare his candidacy last week. But the Euroskeptics loathe him for refusing to rule out Britain joining a single European currency. The only senior figure who might have bridged the gap over Europe was exdeputy prime minister Michael Heseltine, 64, who recently took credit for a deeply negative Tory campaign ad portraying Labour Leader Tony Blair as a puppet on German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s knee. But on Saturday, Heseltine pulled out of the leadership race after being admitted to hospital with heart pains. His decision not to stand dealt a serious blow to a party urgently in need of resuscitation.
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