One year on, Mr Major is still the best prime minister we have
Memory and sentiment are not the guiding forces of our politics, but at this season one makes an exception. A year ago this Friday Mrs Thatcher announced her resignation. The wounds, which seemed in any case far from healed, have been opened again by Mr Alan Watkins' peerless record of the ruthlessness with which some of her so-called friends removed her (A Conservative Coup, Duckworth, 114.99). To TakE --a more positive view, though, the anniversary of her political assassination also marks the end of the first year of Mr Major's premiership. For him and his party it has been a difficult time of compromises on policy, lost by-elections, economic pain and, above all, the wailing banshee of Europe. Only a reckless man would bank on the Tories winning the next election. Many Tory MPs talk openly of the possibil- ities of defeat. It is only human to stop and wonder whether all the grief of last Novem- ber's events was really worth it.
Mr Major, who did not challenge Mrs Thatcher for her job and who, as it were, arrived in it by the accident Mr Michael Heseltine created, has done nothing remarkable in his year in Downing Street. The closest he has come to such an achievement — the reduction of inflation — has been bought at a cost of 800,000 more voters in the dole queues and interest rates far above what would have been dic- tated by an independent monetary policy. His government appears to be, as President Bush might put it, 'not very good at the vision thing'. But Mr Major has, so far, brought no shame either on himself or the country. He is hugely popular with the peo- ple, who correctly identify his decency, competence, honesty and lack of side. The right has not liked the way in which he has become his 'own man', because his advisers have convinced him that to achieve this laudable aim he must be as different from Mrs Thatcher as possible. Yet Mr Major seems to have twigged that the best way to become his own man is to treat critically advice that the Foreign Office, the Trea- sury and his kitchen cabinet give him, and to rely more on his own political instincts; rather as Mrs Thatcher used to, in fact.
When the right of his party, who elected him on Mrs Thatcher's instructions, see him spending too much of the taxpayer's money, being unduly defensive about the Govern- ment's health and welfare programme, talking about boosting other public services and introducing his succession of wildly unimpressive charters, they feel depressed. Whenever a concession that aggrieves the ideological right is made, such as the recent increases in public spending, the Prime Minister's supporters tell those upset by such a tactic that Mrs Thatcher would have done the same. There is, though, no way of telling whether this is true.
Certainly, since she wanted to win her fourth election in a row, she would proba- bly by now have been persuaded of the need for some domestic compromises.The inclement political climate of 1991 might even have forced her to spend more money — though not nearly so much as Mr Major has spent. She had, after all, been persuad- ed to take Britain into the ERM, against which spending another few billions playing doctors and nurses is small beer indeed. She would have made a fight of the poll tax, and would certainly not have contemplated the council tax (a measure whose full cup of woe the Government has yet to taste). Had she been Prime Minister during the Gulf War she might have had George Bush — whose backbone she stiffened the week- end after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait — pur- sue the enemy all the way to Baghdad. Her own desert tours, like the Prime Ministerial tours she would have made of the new St Petersburg, would have been triumphs of publicity. Above all, she might well have had the front to call a khaki election after the war, and might even have won it.
Sir Charles Powell, her former foreign affairs adviser, has said her negotiations with Europe would not have been very dif- ferent to Mr Major's. Her performance when she arrived at Maastricht, though, would have been awesome to behold, and from then on the hypothetical and the actu- al probably part company quite drastically.
Partly out of guilt, the Government feels wary towards Thatcherists, whether in the Conservative party or in the press. The new leadership finds it hard to believe that those who thought Mrs Thatcher was right can be committed supporters of the softer, gentler Mr Major. Indeed, the leadership's nervousness and awareness of its shortcom- ings causes it to suppose that many Thatcherists are engaged in a conspiracy to lose the Government the next election, thereby putting no limit on the amount of time Mr Major can spend at the Oval. The new Tory leaders have been helped to this conclusion by hurtful remarks from some in Fleet Street about the Prime Min- ister's character. The inference to be drawn, they say, from Mr Major's predelic- tion for brown sauce, his pronunciation of the verb 'want', his amnesia about his '0' levels and his Brixton background is that he is not socially or intellectually up to his job. All these observations are trivial and unconnected, even in these image-con- scious times, with Mr Major's ability to be a successful prime minister. However, his friends should • note that such things are written about him because of the shortage of more substantial Major-related topics for discussion and debate. Even after a year in office we do not know that much about him politically. We do not know what he really stands for. We may, though, be about to find out.
The Gulf war was an American led oper- ation in which we had, in political terms, merely a consultative role by the time Mr Major entered Downing Street. Therefore, next month's events at Maastricht will be the first (and, if he is not careful, the only) great test of his premiership. Perhaps Mr Major, in his extreme reasonableness to our so-called partners, is playing a most brilliant game. If he cannot do a deal (and failure to do so will rest on problems, par- ticularly about immigration, in the political treaty, as the pass appears to have been sold on monetary union) he can come home in a confident position. His creden- tials as one who believes in being 'at the heart of Europe' are not in doubt, so fail- ure to sign will not be construed as little Englandism. He has forced his Labour opponents into an absurdist pro-European position, one every opinion poll now claims is unpopular with at least two-thirds of the people. If he has to fight an election on the issue that he stopped Portuguese consuls in Islamabad issuing thousands of visas to Asians who wanted to settle in Romford — a possible feature of a common immigra- tion policy, where the decision on to whom to grant visas may be taken out of the Home Office's remit — he can confidently look forward to five more years in power.
He could ignore the cry to safeguard our sovereignty, a cry raised far beyond the right of his own party. In which case, no doubt, Mr Watkins will be able to write his sequel far sooner than he might suspect.