John Major’s premiership was dogged by endless rumours of a leadership challenge. The media often told the story of the two Michaels. There was to be a great clash between Michael Heseltine and Michael Portillo for the crown. Whilst they both enjoyed tenure in the cabinet, their followers and supporters must have briefed about the coming contest. Little was done to silence these unhelpful comments. I remember MPs coming to see me to suggest I might run in such a ballot. I told them if they were true friends of mine they would not allow or encourage any such speculation. All the time I remained in the cabinet I felt I had to be loyal to the Prime Minister and seek to stop any unhelpful briefings about his position. As a result the press continued to talk about a contest of the 2 Michaels, ignoring me.
Of course, we now know there was no leadership contest between the two Michaels. Neither ran when John Major resigned and asked for a contest in 1995. Michael Heseltine cast aside his ambition to lead the party on the general defeat in 1997. Michael Portillo lost his seat and so was unable to contest the 1997 leadership election. He subsequently lost the 2005 leadership contest. The pundits had spilt loads of ink over a war which never happened.
When I turned up at party conference this autumn I was astonished to be asked by the BBC to cast a vote for either Boris Johnson or George Osborne to be the next leader of the Conservative party. They had placed large ballot boxes in the entrance area. I explained that there is currently no vacancy, and such speculation cannot be helpful. I did not cast a vote.
My advice to the friends of the two is to stop that kind of distracting media speculation. I doubt very much that there will be a leadership contest one day between Mr Osborne and Mr Johnson. Mr Johnson, after all, is not even an MP and intends to run to be Mayor again. This job does not allow him to be an MP and Leader of the Conservative party as well. By the time Mr Cameron does move on there may be plenty of new talents around who have not yet appeared as leadership material.
Meanwhile Mr Johnson needs to reassure his voters in the suburbs that he understands their wishes. They want lower Council taxes and better transport, including freer flowing less congested roads with good realistically priced parking.
Hammersmith and Fulham have shown what can be done. The Conservatives since taking over cut the Council Tax every year, from £916.97 in 2006 to £811.78 in 2010-11. They kept it the same this year owing to the system of government grants which rewarded a standstill, but aim to cut it again to £783 next year. At the same time they have brought the Council debt down from £169 million to £78 million, and improved services. That should be a model to other Councils and the Mayor.