Even the Tories are saying it now: Unhappy is the man whose supporters are more afraid than his opponents. Peter Clarke considers Mr Major and hears echoes of crumbling leaders

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.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

    £90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

    Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

    £96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

    £32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee