20 APRIL 1991, Page 49


Read all about it

Ian Hislop

If anyone says anything interesting in a television programme nowadays you tend to read about it before the programme goes out. On Panorama (BBC 1, 9.30 p.m., .Monday) Sir Alan Walters criticised John Major. Not only was the criticism reported before Panorama appeared but John Major's reaction to the criticism was as well. This made actually watching the pro- gramme a bit superfluous. Norman Tebbit was on the Nine O'Clock News telling Con- servatives to stop sniping at the Prime Minister half an hour before the pre- recorded sniping was broadcast.

The programme, however, did have its compensations, amongst them the attempts of the opposition to be half as effective in attacking John Major as his own party. First there was Paddy Ashdown, who want- ed to know 'Who is he?', but the pot-and- kettle award had to go to Roy Hattersley who made a number of hilarious attempts to blacken Mr Major: 'A man of no convic- tions . . . changes policy day to day . . . an opportunist . . . having no ideology, philos- ophy or belief . . . terrified of unpopulari- ty'. Hattersley clearly had no idea that this might raise a laugh coming from the deputy leader of the new-look Labour Party.

What he was saying was essentially the same thing as Sir Alan Walters but Walters did it with more conviction. Mrs Thatcher's former adviser said that he had seen no evidence of ideas or principles guiding John Major and came up with an image of a cushion that bears the impression of the last person who has sat on it. 'I don't think Mr Major is quite like that,' he added. Of course that is exactly what he thinks John Major is like, which is why he said it. Just as he thinks that Chris Patten deserves the nickname 'Rising Damp'. He looked rather pleased with this little bon mot and I kept thinking that with a slightly camper deliv- ery he could be Gore Vidal.

Nicholas Ridley was even less subtle than Walters. He suggested that Major was being two-faced over Europe and called some Cabinet ministers 'very silly'. The phrase rang a bell about some previous Cabinet minister who had been forced to resign but that train of thought was inter- rupted by an earnest bearded figure who kept appearing on the screen. I thought at first he was the original gnome that the press said Panorama had found in Major's old garden, but he turned out to be some- one with a title that included the word `communications'. He explained that there was a problem with 'a perception' of the party being disunited. Ordinary people might think there is a problem with the party in fact being disunited, and no amount of assurance even from a 'great communicator' like Cecil Parkinson can stop this. Parkinson says that nothing has fundamentally changed since Thatcher left. Walters says that the speed with which Thatcherism has been overturned has sur- prised him. Sharing neither of these views was retired bus-conductress Barbara Laguerre, who refused to say whether she would vote for the man she once beat for a job on London Transport. She repeated her story that he had failed the arithmetic test, which was given added weight by the fact that Major still cannot work out how many 0 levels he has got. 'It's not two,' he told a reporter. 'It's at least six,' said presenter Michael Crick. 'I've forgotten,' said Major. He also seems to have forgotten whether he was living at the address on the electoral roll which he gave at the time he became a local councillor.

Whatever the reasons for all this confu- sion, one thing did become clear. Under John Major some things have changed. In the old days Conservatives used to attack Panorama for criticising the Prime Minister. Now they appear on the pro- gramme to do it themselves.

'Rome? Back the way you came, or straight on, left or right, right or left again . .