John Major’s future as Britain’s prime minister hinges on today’s vote for the Conservative Party leadership, with the outcome requiring not just a simple majority but a large enough margin to satisfy party rules with some to spare.
As of late Monday, his fate was in the balance, with no clear result emerging among the many polls and canvasses of the 329 Tory members of Parliament eligible to vote.
Major forced a snap election by resigning June 22 as party leader in order, he said, to pressure his unruly party to “put up or shut up,” that is, to depose him or cease their running criticism.
His sole challenger, right-wing Cabinet minister John Redwood, added to the bitterness of the short campaign Monday by accusing Major of running a government characterized by “uncertainty based on indecision.”
Both candidates appeared Monday before a group of right-wing legislators to press their cases in a meeting that was described as crucial to their campaigns to influence colleagues in the contest.
The secret balloting - to be held at 5 p.m. in a committee room in the Palace of Westminster - will be reminiscent of November 1990, when Conservative members of Parliament caused the downfall of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Under British practice, the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons is automatically selected as prime minister. The Conservative Party leader is chosen not by the party at large, but only by those members serving in the House of Commons.
Party rules require the winner to have an absolute majority on the first ballot - 165 votes - plus 15 percent more than the runner-up, or a margin of 50 votes in the current Tory makeup.
Political specialists suggest that Major will have little trouble defeating Redwood - even with the 50 extra votes needed.
But Major must not only win, but do so “convincingly,” according to the experts.
This means, they say, that he must poll a minimum of 220-225 votes in order to show support from roughly two-thirds of his colleagues.
Anything less than 200 votes would be in the danger zone, in this analysis, leaving him technically the leader but hopelessly crippled. Having failed to establish his supremacy in the special election, he would be under pressure to resign.
A vote of 230 or more would establish his primacy once again.
The question that has intrigued political commentators is what Major would do if his margin falls somewhere in the gray zone around 210 votes - having beaten Redwood but undercut by a large number of abstentions.
Abstentions could represent tactical voting against both Major and Redwood by Parliament members who want to force a second ballot.
In a second ballot a week later, additional candidates can enter the race, and only a simple majority is needed to win the leadership.
So supporters of the left-of-center Heseltine, the pro-European trade secretary regarded as the choice among British voters, and Employment Secretary Michael Portillo, a favorite of the right, could abstain to force Major’s ouster and then enter their own favorites on a second ballot.
If no candidate received a simple majority on the second ballot, the two leading contenders would compete in a third ballot.
“Anything less than a big win by John Major,” a parliamentary observer said Monday, “will mean a Conservative Party heading for the next election hopelessly divided.”