hen the normally loyal Conservative press turns on its own government, something pretty serious is up. The Prime Minister was incensed to read in the Daily Telegraph, of all papers, that the country was 'waiting to feel the smack of firm government'. That was in January 1956 and it produced a considerable sensation, and foreshadowed a change of tenant at 10 Downing Street before 12 months were out.

'Eden is a flop: even the Tories are saying it now,' was the banner headline in the Daily Mirror. Such forthright criticism sapped Eden's credibility well before the Suez crisis gave him the coup de grace. The golden boy, who had succeeded to the premiership such a short time before, suddenly seemed to have lost his touch.

Just as Churchill was a hard act to follow, so is Margaret Thatcher.

John Major succeeded to the premiership as Not-Thatcher. Initially the country welcomed a change and was ready to lend its indulgence to a leader cast in a different mould. His predicament has been to convert this into a positive role. The triumph of the leader as anti-hero depends on him being himself - but more so. He needs to show vision and to inspire confidence even while abjuring the heroic tradition of great leaders of the past.

The heroic style of leadership stands in a famous tradition. Gladstone's Midlothian campaigns were never forgotten. Lloyd George made politics into a rival of the music hall. Winston Churchill projected his presence through the wireless to enlist public opinion behind his peremptory calls for action. Margaret Thatcher's achievement was to develop a populist appeal for her crusade to turn Whitehall upside down.

Yet none of these leaders was impregnable. Gladstone's confidence that he could carry his party with him on Irish Home Rule was confounded in 1886, with a massive defection of his supporters. For a moment, after the First World War, Lloyd George looked like the master of Europe - until a meeting of Tory backbenchers in 1922 pulled the rug from under his coalition government. Churchill's wartime grand strategy paid off in 1945, only for its architect to be summarily dismissed by the British electorate. And the abrubtness of Margaret Thatcher's demise proves that the smack of firm government can provoke an equal and opposite reaction.

Wisely, Mr Major never sought to emulate his predecessor's style. For the heroic model of leadership has often been matched by an equally efective strategy pitched in a lower key. Thus Gladstone was outwitted by the great Lord Salisbury, who grimly sensed that the last thing Conservatives should do was to compete with the Grand Old Man's madcap schemes.

Lloyd George met his comeuppance from a man who simply observed that a dynamic force is a terrible thing. This was Stanley Baldwin's winning line in 1922. Thereafter, he constructed a successful political persona around being anything but a Welsh wizard. It was likewise the humdrum Attlee who provided the perfect foil for Churchill, countering a larger-than-life performance with one that elevated understatement into an art form.

So leadership need not be charismatic to succeed. It must, however, convey a sense of authority, purpose and competence. Competence is the indispensable substitute for charisma. There is a sentimental appeal in watching an apparently ordinary man doing an extraordinary job - but only so long as he seems on top of it. Bungling turns pathos to bathos.

This is where Mr Major is particularly vulnerable, as were Baldwin and Attlee before him. Both of these great party managers suffered moments of mismanagement, even though both reasserted themselves in time to avoided shipwreck.

In 1923, fresh in post, Baldwin led the Conservatives to their greatest inter-war electoral defeat, by bringing forward the very issue - tariffs - that had always spelt disaster for them. If he was lucky to survive then, the loss of a further general election in 1929 was blamed on his uninspiring leadership. The press barons, led by Beaverbrook, mounted another challenge and it was only by summoning rare passion that Baldwin reasserted his control.

Attlee likewise was long thought dispensable by rivals in his own party. Not even Labour's mighty election victory in 1945 made him safe. In the double crisis of 1947, when first coal ran short and then dollars, Attlee seemed frozen into inactivity and bankrupt of strategy. Had a plausible rival been willing to strike, his premiership might have ended ignominiously, only two years after its promising beginning.

But Ernest Bevin was unwilling to oust him, and Stafford Cripps proved unable to do so - or to resist the glittering promotion that Attlee unexpectedly proffered. Here was a sign that the Prime Minister had recovered his nerve, after the constant battering which his government had endured.

In the end, Baldwin led the Conservative Party for 14 years and Attlee led Labour for 20, and each was able to choose the moment for an honourable retirement. In retrospect it is easy to forget how near they came to the edge of a precipice. A situation that looks difficult but manageable can quickly slide out of control. One mistake hastens the next when punch-drunk ministers stumble deeper into trouble.

The big crises in 20th-century government have occurred amid a sense of strategic failure. In the First World War, Asquith may have been following a defensible policy; but by the end of 1916 it did not look like it. His rival, Lloyd George, gave the impression of a man who knew what needed to be done and would do it.

In 1931 it was not clear that anyone knew what to do. A demoralised Labour cabinet was faced with mounting waves of crisis: a world slump, rising unemployment, a budget deficit and a run on the pound. A sense of despair and impotence led to the final collapse. In 1940 it was hardly Neville Chamberlain's fault that France was on the point of defeat or that the Norway campaign had failed. But confidence, already dented, now buckled, and a change of prime minister became inevitable.

Above all, successful leadership demands commitment to a strategy that holds out some prospect of success. There must be light at the end of the tunnel to sustain morale and make sacrifices bearable. Churchill promised blood, toil, sweat and tears - but to some purpose. Despite setback after setback, the church bells were rung in England in 1942 after the battle of El Alamein to mark a victory and, more significant, a long- awaited turning point. As John Major prepares for his Egyptian journey this week to mark the anniversary of the battle, he should ask himself for whom the bell tolls.

The writer is professor of modern British history at Cambridge University.

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