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Ministerial murmurs from the tea-rooms

It is the stuff of which Westminster dramas are made: The ambitious cabinet minister meets the favoured lobby correspondent on the terrace bar of the House of Commons. As cork is eased from bottle, the ambitious minister confides that, while backing the PM 100 per cent, should anyone mount a challenge and the PM withdraw "well, er, it would only be the correct thing to throw one's name into the ring, but of course, it didn't come from me".

The next day the headline ("Minister mounts challenge for No 10") tops a story quoting "friends" of the minister saying that he, or she, is ready to stand. When other papers call for on-the-record comment, there is nothing but a flat denial.

No one has suggested that this scenario preceded last weekend's Sunday Telegraph story that Gillian Shephard would fight for the Tory leadership if John Major stood down this summer. But around the members' tea-rooms the suspicion will linger that even if one "well-placed source" was not the best placed source of all, then at least some friends were floating a story to gauge reaction.

According to the Sunday Telegraph, Mrs Shephard would be a candidate of the "soft Right" since her support is growing among Conservative MPs who are impressed by her handling of that most difficult wrestling partner, the "educational establishment", and it adds: "Not every paper rose to the bait." The Daily Mail described Mrs Shephard as a "dark horse" who would "grab the reins of power" in spite of her description of the Telegraph story as "unfounded speculation." But the Daily Telegraph thought the story was a bid for Jeremy Hanley's post as party chairman, not a push for Downing Street.

An Independent profile was no more hopeful. It suggested she could sit between HeseltineClarke on the Left and Portillo on the Right as a possible candidate of compromise (a John Major without the grey?) and quoted her role in backing her present boss in the 1990 leadership crisis that brought down Margaret Thatcher. But it feared her unknown views on Europe will count against her and noted her opponents' view that "education is the only subject she knows anything about". The conclusion: She would run if Major stood down before the next election but would only be taken seriously after the poll.

Opinion is also divided on the Mrs Shephard's appearance before the Secondary Heads Association. The Daily Express says she has "gone native" by asking head teachers to help her fight the Treasury for more money. But the Daily Mail called her speech a "virtuoso performance" as the audience clapped, laughed, and paid "rapt attention".

If only MPs were as easily won over as headteachers . . .

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