DO NOT ask yourself whether or not John Major's government will introduce workfare. It cannot. This has nothing to do with the arguments or the cost. Workfare cannot happen because Mr Major lacks the power to impose it. Almost certainly, it would be destroyed by Commons rebels, but if, somehow, it survived to become law, workfare would become a second poll tax, provoking mass hostility, then a U-turn. This government could not muster the moral or political authority to force the jobless to turn out one morning for make-work schemes.

All the signs are that Mr Major and his colleagues know this full well. The loudest noise in Whitehall yesterday was the splash, drip, splash, drip, of ministers rowing backwards. So what was Mr Major up to in the Carlton Club? Was it part of a planned move to introduce the idea of workfare gradually? Was it really about training, but badly phrased? Was it just an idea he thought it would be fun to mention? Apparently Mr Major himself was surprised by everyone's interest, which is itself pretty surprising. Whatever he was up to, the millions of unemployed deserved a little better than 35 seconds of verbal titillation in St James's.

Mr Major's words suggested to me a reference to compulsory training, while winking at workfare to please the radical right: 'I increasingly wonder whether paying unemployment benefit, without offering or requiring any activity in return, serves unemployed people or society well. Of course, we have to make sure that any conditions imposed improve the job prospects of unemployed people and give good value to the country.'

Make-work schemes involve either jobs that are useful enough to crowd out commercial companies, or local authority employees (so defeating the object). Or they are so low-grade that they don't give people much extra self-confidence or skill. How many redundant executives or factory machinists would find their morale or prospects improved by swinging pickaxes or painting community halls?

Yet the Government has failed the unemployed, and not merely in its macroeconomic mistakes. Idleness is demoralising. Even if the devil doesn't make work for idle hands, the friendly neighbourhood fence, or crack dealer, will. For the majority who don't succumb to crime, drugs or alcoholism, the rhythmless longueurs of the dole offer another kind of hell.

The self-discipline required for work needs to be learnt and, once learnt, retained. Many hundreds of thousands of Britons are fighting to keep their morale and self-respect while they search for work. Others, though, are losing that fight or have declined to enter it. They may never fit back into the workforce, even in comparatively good times. The best argument for workfare is that it can help people to get the working habit.

That, though, can be achieved just as effectively with training, a point that Gillian Shephard, the Employment Secretary, has grasped. The Restart scheme for the long-term unemployed hardly counts, and the training budget is a national disgrace. The Cabinet needs to go much farther, with an ambitious and compulsory scheme for all the younger jobless. If it has to be paid for with company levies, fair enough. This training would be based on a contract signed by both sides, and carried out in companies or colleges. If private-sector training merged into productive work, so much the better. For some, acquiring fluent French or passing accountancy exams would be the aim. For others, the goal would be basic literacy. Those who failed to turn up, or made little effort, would find their benefits cut.

A serious approach to unemployment would not stop there. There is no shortage of ideas. The organisation Employment 2000 has suggested seconding unemployed people to private and public- sector companies, with a small bonus payment, thus keeping them in the world of work. Or suppose the Treasury paid employers' national insurance contributions every time a company recruited a jobless person, for as long as that person had been without work? Or suppose unemployed people who set up businesses themselves were excused all taxes for two years and given free training in management? Would such schemes cost much more than unemployment?

The Cabinet divides between full-scale workfare advocates and their opponents. But at Westminster, the mood is such that compulsory training, and schemes such as those listed here would receive surprisingly widespread assent. There is an opportunity. But timing is all, and any suggestion that a struggling government was attempting to punish others for its own failings in the middle of a recession would kill off not only workfare, but also any radicalism. A little humility from ministers would, by contrast, do wonders.

Mr Major concluded his speech this week by attacking his critics in words borrowed from Edmund Burke. The moaners were like grasshoppers: 'little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour'. Well, as one professional grasshopper, I know that Burke is a weapon anyone may pick up. He understood that politics is mostly about timing: 'The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.' The circumstances are right for more inventive, radical measures to tackle unemployment. But with this government, at this time, the circumstances could not be worse for workfare.