BOOKS:Going walkabout

TOO CLOSE TO CALL: Power and Politics - John Major in No 10 by Sarah Hogg and Jonathan Hill, Little Brown pounds 17.50
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The Independent Culture
DURING the past summer No 10 Downing Street has acknowledged the apparent downfall and then re-emergence of its two most restless inhabitants: Humphrey the cat and John Major the Prime Minister. Both were all but written off; both are still there, in occupancy.

This delightfully domestic sketch of life in and around a most unfathomable premier reveals the true extent of John Major's capacity for going astray. It is not just that he shares with Humphrey a free-ranging tendency throughout No 10's many nooks and crannies; it is also his occasional propensity to wander off, gentle, into the night. The authors take up the tale ...

"This caused a security panic in the first week, when the Prime Minister went missing. Since he had already forbidden his Principal Private Secretary to operate the buzzer system which is supposed to tell his Private Office when he enters or leaves the building, it was some time before the detectives realised he had gone AWOL. He wasn't anywhere in No 10. His car was still in the street. He hadn't walked out the front door. Where could he be?"

Where indeed? Was he doing a Gladstone in and around Soho, perhaps seeking out members of his parliamentary party? No, nothing so dramatic: "the Prime Minister had gone out through Number 12 with a colleague to McDonald's in Victoria Street."

Quite what Mr Major's late-night choice of eatery tells us is anybody's guess. The one thing that can be said with some certainty, however, is that you would never have seen Mrs Thatcher stuffing down a Big Mac with large fries in McDonald's.

There are no violations of the Official Secrets Act within these covers. We do learn, however, that the two clocks in the Cabinet Room show slightly different times. We discover that Mr Major, under pressure, foregoes food for much of the day - only to plunge in ravenously when the deal is done or the problem solved. And Mr Heseltine's instincts as the grand man of grandiose government are confirmed.

As is something else about Tarzan, indeed about this year's most intriguing political conversation at which to have been a fly on the wall. According to the authors, on the morning of Mr Major's second Tory leadership election, that great heart-to-heart with Heseltine was a lot less dramatic than many people imagined. The conspiracy theories are demolished by the news that the reason for Heseltine spending a long time at Downing Street was his going through his likely new remit with the Cabinet Secretary, and that although his supporters "down in the undergrowth" had taken soundings, any prospect of a Heseltine bandwagon had been abandoned the previous week. So there you have it.

This account of life aboard the John Major rollercoaster reads as good journalese. It rollicks along, and in so doing it gives a graphic sense of the sheer unpredictabilities of life as viewed from the nerve-centre itself, while underscoring the huge achievement of the Tories in snatching victory from the jaws of defeat by the time of the last general election.

Having lost their nerve and dumped Mrs Thatcher they then regained their nerve under Mr Major. To inherit the bitterly divided party which he did and somehow to steer it through the shark-infested waters of the Gulf war, poll tax replacement and Maastricht was a considerable achievement. But there is no doubting the internal assessment which these two Tory insiders confirm - that a combination of Neil Kinnock and John Smith's shadow budget sealed Labour's fate.

Two other items in passing engaged me. One was the acknowledgement that the poll tax was "precision bombed" by the Liberal Democrat victory at the Ribble Valley by-election, thereby putting paid to the propaganda that by-elections do not make a difference to affairs of state. And the other was the fact that, pre-election, John Major did commission a paper on the options for Sterling's realignment within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

The fact that he decided against, and failed to press ahead with Maastricht ratification when he had the momentum behind him were, with hindsight, to become two snares around his ankles. Yet over both Margaret Thatcher cast a long and baleful shadow. Currency revision would have caused Tory party upheaval; the pre-election options for parliamentary ratification were heavily circumscribed by the extent to which poll tax replacement was consuming so much of the available time.

Europe, Europe, it always comes back to Europe. Despite Mr Portillo's recent conference implosion it remains the faultline of contemporary Conservatism. Now another intergovernmental conference beckons, and with it another general election. Soon it will be time to go walkabout again - having gone hungry with anxiety in anticipation. Downing Street nooks and crannies beckon, as does the soapbox.

Little wonder, really, that Humphrey the cat just couldn't stay away.

Charles Kennedy is Liberal Democrat MP for Ross, Cromarty and Skye.