THE CURIOUS CONFIDENCE OF JOHN MAJOR
John Simpson explains how the
Prime Minister remained so cheerful, even as the opinion polls condemned him
At two o'clock, according to Sir Roger's com- mittee, the numbers were as follows:- Scatcherd 275 Moffat 268
Whereas, by the light afforded by Mr Mof- fat's people, they stood in a slightly different ratio to each other, being written thus:-
Moffat 277 Scatcherd 269
THUS THE Barchester campaign from Anthony Trollope's Dr Thorne, companion volume to The Small House at Allington, which IS the book John Major would take with him (together with the Bible and Shakespeare) to his desert island. Perhaps it was the name that sug- gested it, but as I stood in the main street of the West Country village of Thornbury I reflected that Trollope's election was not much different from the one we have been enduring. A few yards away Mr Major was assuring the crowd Which surrounded him that on 10 April he would form a govern- ment, and that the coun- try would never return to the days of the Lib-Lab Pact; while to my right, the rounded Somerset vowels of an energetic man with a grizzled
beard and a ruddy complexion were com- peting with the Conservative loudspeakers: All you do is rubbish the opposition! We want to know what your view is!' This Showed that he was a Liberal; only Liberals want to know what a hostile politician's view is.
Behind us stood a rather grand police station, with the date '1860' on it: two years
after the publication of Dr Thome, whose frontispiece shows an election crowd gath- ered around a similar building, brandishing
hats and umbrellas:
'Hurrah! Hur-r-r-rah! more power to you. We all know who you are, Roger. You're the boy! When did you get drunk last?' Suchlike greetings, together with a dead cat which was flung at him from the crowd, and which he dextrously parried with his stick, were the answers which he received to this exordium.
There seem to be fewer dead cats around nowadays, and not even an egg made its appearance in Thornbury. But John Major has re-invented Trollopian street politics for the television cameras. In the age of the car bomb and the easier availability of firearms it was a bold step, and he had to override the strongest advice of his security advisers. But the crowds loved it. never say he's" grey any more,' said a woman as he clambered back onto his bus. `Good God,' responded the famous tabloid journalist standing beside me: 'a quote I don't have to make up.'
The kind of campaign John Major has fought freed him from the tyranny of his usual routine. He reminds me of the televi- sion programme editors who occasionally come out with us on reporting expeditions: they feel liberated by the actuality of the world which they discover outside their newsrooms. The people they encounter are no longer abstract figures in agency dis- patches, or in Mr Major's. case Treasury statistics; they are flesh and blood, they have noisy, variegated opinions, and they express them at length. For most of his time at Westminster, Mr Major has been a desk man, his face and name largely unknown to the wider public. No audience rustled in anticipation when he rose to speak, no auto- graph-hunter stalked him, ballpoint at the ready, no one pressed his hand lovingly and told him what a marvel- lous job he was doing for the country. When he took to the streets with his soap-box and his microphone, these things happened dozens of times a day. If he was worried about the likely outcome of the elec- tion, therefore, he would go out and meet real people. Then he would come back feel- ing a great deal better.
And so whenever he spoke privately to the journalists who fol-
lowed his campaign around, there was always a note of puzzlement in his voice. Only one thing was wrong with the cam- paign, he would say: the opinion polls. He had the sense of being genuinely popular, and his campaign workers, Barchester-like, produced figures to support it. When he said he was confident of winning a clear majority, he was not just trying to keep his spirits up. His spirits were up. Could it be, he occasionally asked out loud, that people were being polite to him and failing to tell
the truth to the party workers 'on the doorstep'? Surely not, given those out- stretched hands, the press of people trying to catch a glimpse of him, the way the hecklers were drowned out by friendly Tory voices. Very peculiar.
Opinion in the party at large was divided. Many campaign workers were increasingly gloomy and blamed everything and every- body, from John Major himself to Chris Patten, Mrs Thatcher, the poll tax and the BBC, which the tabloid newspapers said was biased against them. Yet at Central Office there was a natural inclination to fall in with John Major's optimism. 'If we can get to the last couple of days and still be level-pegging, then we'll scrape back in,' one official said. Throughout the campaign there was a persistent belief in Smith Square that the same number of votes would generate more Conservative seats than Labour ones.
That in turn seems to have led to anoth- er belief: that it was possibly disloyal, and certainly damaging, to suggest that any- thing other than an outright Conservative win was likely. And so no serious thought appears to have been given to the course of action to be followed in the event of a hung Parliament with the Conservatives in a slight majority. 'It isn't going to happen,' was the standard reply to questions on the subject. It was not entirely a matter of tac- tics. If John Major displayed passion in his campaign it was not, as you might think, when he dealt with the minutiae of taxation policy; it was, instead, when he talked about the constitution.
The refusal to give the slightest hint of movement on proportional representation was, for him, a clear matter of principle. He did not believe, after the fashion of Trollope's political agents in the Barch- ester election, Messrs Nearthewinde and Closerstil, in offering backhanders to his opponents. He went out of his way to rule out any post-election deal, and made it impossible to turn back by attacking not just the Liberal Democrats but also their most cherished notion, proportional repre- sentation. Maybe his emphasis on main- taining the Union between Scotland and England has helped the Scottish National- ists make inroads into Labour support, but for John Major it was not primarily a ques- tion of tactics but of conviction; he would rather lose the election than give way on the Union.
There is no need to repeat at any length all the 'riots' about John Major: not a man of transcendent vision, not an orator, not an inspirer of others, and so on. After the longest election campaign in our modern history, we know all that. He still seems to me like any other man in his mid-forties who has been promoted too fast and can- not quite hide his surprise. But he has stuck to his principles. In 1974 Edward Heath was willing to entertain a deal with almost anyone to keep himself in office; in 1978 and 1987 Margaret Thatcher was pre- pared to hint at questionable views on immigration to keep the support of work- ing-class Tories. John Major has done nei- ther. He has also spoken out publicly against capital punishment. None of this will have endeared him to those people in the Conservative Party who think the pur- pose of politics is to be in power, not to have principles; but if he loses this election and his leadership of the party is put in question, he will not have done anything to be ashamed of. That is important to him: he himself has said that James Callaghan fought a dignified campaign in 1979, and he would plainly like that to be said about himself now.
The high-minded approach has, however, raised the bar he must clear to an almost impossible height. Unless he does gain an overall majority, it will be very hard for him to form another government: he has ruled out the basic requirements of the Lib Dems and the Scot Nats. And to gain a majority, he must defeat history. His recital of the horrors of Labour government, delivered as though there actually were a Labour gov- ernment and he an opposition leader bat- tling against it in the streets, has sounded absurdly antiquated to an electorate whose voters have to be in their thirties to remember such things; by contrast the mis- managed poll tax and the savage economic disappointments of the last two or three years are fresh in everyone's memory. Mr Major believes — and it is a very John Major thing to say — that the electorate is not angry with the Conservatives, merely cross. We shall soon see.
As for the result in Trollope's election,
at five o'clock the mayor of Barchester pro- claimed the results of the contest in the fol- lowing figures:- Scatcherd 378
Moffat 376 The result was later overturned; but Moffat was the Tory.
'I like it. It contains the truth, the whole truth and anything but the truth.'