20 APRIL 1991, Page 6


Mr Major comes under a withering hail of friendly fire


A man from the Sun asked rather a good question about how Labour could accuse the Government of changing its policies for reasons of expediency when Labour itself had done nothing else for the last four years. Mr Kinnock went on to automatic pilot and uttered a paragraph about Labour's fundamental convictions; we all waited politely until he had finished, and then moved on to other matters. Asked about his '0' levels, Mr Kinnock said he had six, sternly adding that no one could possibly forget such a thing. Five minutes later he said he had counted again, and found he had seven; this just showed, he said, how easy it was to forget such things. We all had a good laugh at this, and none laughed louder than Mr Kinnock (remind- ing me of Dame Edna Everage's remark to Mr Jeffrey Archer: 'You have to learn to laugh at yourself, Jeffrey, don't you otherwise you'd be missing out on the best joke of all').

I left this press conference on Tuesday morning in two minds. On the one hand, I was struck by how Mr Kinnock's stature seemed to have shrunk over the last few months: not Jack the Giant-Killer any more, but rather Jiminy Cricket, sitting in a corner, chirruping away. But on the other hand the friendly rapport between press and politicians on this occasion was far better than anything the Tory Party now seems able to manage. Imagine if Mr Major had been caught out at a press conference, altering his total number of '0' levels: the atmosphere would be glacial, and the silence would be broken only by the sound of journalists sprinting to the nearest telephone to inform their editors of this latest element of the political crisis.

That headlines can be manufactured out of such absurdly unimportant things sug- gests that something has gone wrong. But I am not sure that it has gone wrong with the journalists. The scene at the Labour press conference was one of utter normality: politicians going through their tricks, and press men looking on with scepticism and indifference. If the journalists had really started behaving like a lynch mob, you would expect them to apply similar tactics to Labour. Yet only the Tory Party is wandering round like a possessed nun, displaying its stigmata and complaining of crucifixion by the media. I cannot help thinking that most of these wounds are self-inflicted. Take the great debate about the Prime Minister's school record, for example. First Mr Major made it a matter of interest by emphasising, or allowing his campaigners to emphasise, that he was an unacademic sort of bloke; and then the media discovered that he had quite recently instructed his old school not to make his record public. All right, so these things can make embarrassing read- ing (one thinks of the report on young Michael Heseltine by his study monitor at Shrewsbury: 'he is rebellious, objection- able, idle, imbecilic, inefficient, antagonis- ing, untidy, lunatic, albino'); but all the same, people would hardly bother to look for Mr Major's school reports if he hadn't hidden them in the first place.

The same goes for his political opinions. Less than two years ago I was told by another journalist that Mr Major had just confided in him that his real political hero was lain Macleod. 'What do you mean, "confided"?' I asked. 'Well, he didn't want me to tell anyone,' he said. Now, lain Macleod was an influential and much- loved senior Tory politician; but that re- mark made him sound more like Madame Blavatsky. Some will say, of course, that this merely shows what life was like in the Tory Party during the last years of the oppressive Thatcherite junta. I believe that it tells us something about Mr Major.

One of the few revealing comments he made in his interview with Sue Lawley was when Miss Lawley asked what made him angry. There was only one thing, he replied, which really made him go into orbit, and that was being patronised. He is thin-skinned in a meritorious sort of way; his is not the touchiness of the arrogant, but almost the opposite. He lacks the inner self-assurance which true arrogance brings (consider his predecessor as Chancellor, for example); nor does he enjoy the consolations of malice. And so, like many thin-skinned people, he developed the habit of exposing as little skin as possible. It is a habit which goes very well with a career up the Treasury ladder; but it ill becomes a Prime Minister, who needs to have a thick skin, and plenty of it.

The people who ought to be helping him to develop that thick skin — above all, people in the Whips' Office and the Cen- tral Office of the party — seem curiously jittery too. Instead of reacting with scrupu- lous indifference to the more irritating attacks on him, they have a tendency to stir things up and prolong the hostilities. It may be that a few of them are stupid enough to believe what they say, namely that there is a hard core of kamikaze Thatcherites in the party and the press who want to bring about a Labour victory. But I would not want to insult the intelligence of the Whips with such an imputation. I prefer to think that they are playing a clever game, deliberately over-reacting in order to create an atmosphere of panic in the party, in which it becomes much easier for them to twist arms and silence potential trouble-makers.

Last week's Bruges brouhaha was a good example of this. The Bruges Group is not part of the Conservative Party, any more than Shelter or the Child Poverty Action Group are part of Labour. When a state- ment criticising Mr Major was issued by the Group's secretary, and blown up into a front page story by the Daily Mail, there was one obvious way for the Tory Whips to defuse the situation: they could point out that the Bruges Group was nothing to do with them. Instead, they entered the fray as if they were dealing with a rebellious party organisation, thereby transforming a non-story into a story. And the pressure they put on the organisers of the Group Itself was always likely to be unproductive: any independent organisation will know that it cannot start accepting demands from the Government for resignations or for pledges of silence without fatally com- promising its own independence. Mr Major may not realise how ill-served he is. It is difficult anyway to become battle-hardened in a hurry; but too many of the bullets whizzing past him at the moment are coming from his own trigger- happy protection squad.