IN UNDERSTANDING what the British people think of John Major, it is instructive to look at a challenge once taken up by the Prime Minister's favourite author, Anthony Trollope. Starting work on a biography of Thackeray, Trollope asked those who had known the great writer for their recollections. From all he received the same type of answer: 'If I could only tell you the impromptu lines that fell from him]' and 'If I could only remember the drolleries]' With a few intimate friends Thackeray was a delightful companion, but in general society he did not shine. And so it is - or seems to be - with Mr Major.

He, too, is highly praised by those closest to him, but by the wider public he remains unloved. No genial stories have gathered about his personality that might endear him to the nation. Even those who admire some aspects of his stewardship find him uninspiring. Those who do not rate him highly use such words as 'puppet', 'impersonal', 'not really his own man'.

On the whole, people are bland in their judgements, perhaps reflecting a leader who himself can be as precise as a timetable but whose vocabulary seems to consist mainly of plain, serviceable words. The most intemperate anti-Major statement came from Jonathan Wade, a 26-year-old City fund manager: 'I don't think he has got anything right . . . He's a minus in the City . . . He'll be gone by autumn.' The most enthusiastic praise came from an army major in Tunbridge Wells: 'He's first class]'. A Cardiff doctor, having carefully scanned Mr Major for a 'secret brain or prescient tongue', asked: 'Where is the high-water mark of his political genius? Where is his policy? His following? His purpose?'

The voice of the populace is notoriously difficult to identify and to interpret. Those contacted for this informal survey were more or less randomly selected from telephone directories: butcher, baker, candlestick-maker; tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, and so on. Nearly all acknowledged that Mr Major had inherited 'a mess'. Samuel Heath, whose Birmingham company supplies the John Lewis Partnership with brass and silver candlesticks, said, for example: 'With the benefit of hindsight, the 1992 general election might have been a good one to lose: the problems we're suffering from are Europe- wide. Having said that, it appears that the consequences of the Government's actions are not thought through in the way one would expect.'

Cliff Cowburn, who runs a sausage shop in Clitheroe, believes any successor to Margaret Thatcher would have had his work cut out. 'John Major definitely took over a sticky mess, but he has had poor advisers, jiggling around with the interest rates and damaging the Government's credibility.'

But what are prime ministers for, if not to sort out sticky messes? 'I think Major lacks strength - a lot of people feel he's namby-pamby,' Mr Cowburn said. 'I would have liked to see Norman Tebbit in power for our present crises.'

The Prime Minister's apparent lack of passion, is interpreted by some as a leadership flaw. 'I can't see him as a leader,' said David Hoadley of Portsmouth. 'There are better people around - Heseltine, for example - who could have done the job.' Mr Hoadley's wholesale bakery (current annual turnover, pounds 470,000) has 'coped moderately' with the recession, yet he is disappointed in Mr Major, thinking him wooden. 'He doesn't seem to know his own mind. He backed Cabinet ministers he should not have backed, such as Mellor and Lamont, and has thereby damaged his own credibility.'

Leadership doubts are also held by women voters. Susan Paterson, managing director of a London chauffeur service, had thought things would get better when Mr Major was elected. She has been disappointed. 'I'm afraid he's going nowhere. There is no confidence in him, which is why people are holding back on spending. He's like a little puppet without his own opinions. People still hope someone else will take over from him.'

Those with doubts are found everywhere. On the outskirts of Durham City, James Clark, a miner-turned- businessman (computer stationery), has few expectations of Mr Major, 'since he was so close to Mrs Thatcher in the first place . . . and he can't quite deal with the No Turning Back group, much as he might like to'. Consequently, said Mr Clark, 'we see a resurgence of the Conservative Party's right wing and I feel John Major doesn't know what he wants to be; that he's carrying out policies he's not really committed to. That may explain the absence of forcefulness.'

Nor does people's regard for their leader depend greatly on what their jobs are. Andy, a reformed London thief now doing social work, sums up the leader thus: 'I don't even think of Major as a prime minister or a leader, merely as someone bending to the will of ministers and civil servants. I thought he'd be a caring-type person. That's not the reality. But you can't love or hate the man, because there's nothing to love or hate.'

Mrs Thatcher had leadership qualities, partly, it is said, because she was ruthless. Her successor does not convey an impression of being ruthless. Samuel Heath, for instance, while liking the fact that the Major Cabinet 'appears to be much more of a committee now', worries about the Prime Minister's 'lack of ruthlessness in getting rid of people who don't fit, or who aren't performing'. Echoing that sentiment, James Clark thinks that Mr Major has set a bad example by discouraging ministers from resigning when errors have been made. 'That created a widespread belief that nobody took responsibility for their mistakes,' Mr Clark says.

Some people do not want to be led by a ruthless prime minister. They are content with 'grey-is-good' after years of autocratic leadership by Mrs Thatcher. In Belfast, a college lecturer recalled Balfour's words: 'It is sad that enthusiasm should have more influence than anything else, for few enthusiasts tell the truth.' Giuseppe Alessi, a bespoke tailor in Accrington, who arrived from Sicily in 1961, also seems happy with the Prime Minister's apparent greyness. 'I do not understand Mr Major, but believe him to be a good family man,' he said. Besides, Mr Alessi added, Mr Major's Britain was still better than Italy and Sicily, where the Mafia exerts power and taxes are evaded.

Do people take greyness and lack of passion for lack of firm beliefs? Some do, some don't. James Cruikshank, a potato farmer in Rothienorman, feels 'quite confident' about Mr Major. 'He listens and understands, a very bright person who is less dogmatic than his predecessor. Talking to my colleagues, I think things could be worse.' David Milne, who owns a lighting equipment shop in Aberdeen, said: 'Although Mr Major may not be in control - he chops and changes - I think I could place my trust in him.'

All this is fairly nebulous stuff. Surely Mr Major has chalked up some accomplishments that are firmly fixed in people's minds. Here one runs into difficulty. Not many people - a tiny few, in fact - refer to Maastricht. The candlestick-maker praises Mr Major's negotiation of the treaty, 'his biggest single success - a masterful piece of negotiation'. Other than that, Maastricht does not seem to excite.

What about the 'classless society'? Mr Hoadley said: 'I don't think there's much change. It used to be if you wanted to work hard you could get on. Not any more.' Collette Cowin, a Swindon solicitor, was hopeful when Mr Major became Prime Minister, but is not any more. 'He does not inspire and is as grey as he was painted. The 'have-nots' still have not and the 'haves' still have. Unless you can make it on your own you don't have much of a chance. Everything is driven by money: pit closures, the health service - all calculated and uncaring.'

Inexorably, it becomes clear that Mr Major is appraised, fairly or unfairly, in negative terms. There is nothing faintly approaching a delirium of loyalty. Mr Clark in Durham criticises an 'insufficient balance in the economy' and quietly states his disappointment at the Prime Minister's refusal to make full employment a main plank of his economic policy. 'John Major has not achieved a more caring society.' Joyce Bailey, curate of St Paul's Church in Tunbridge Wells, has decided that Mr Major 'is a bit of a mess, actually'. She continued: 'I suppose I was relieved the Thatcher era had ended and hoped Major would be more socially-minded. Mrs Thatcher was trying to take us back in time, in education and in health care. Far from undoing that process, he has made it worse. I was unpleasantly surprised to hear him urge us the other day to condemn more and understand less on the problem of crime.'

Again and again the suggestion surfaces that, following the stormy, often exhilarating Thatcher years, the electorate expected more comfort from Mr Major's Downing Street than he has proved capable of providing. People therefore tend to view his performance through the prism of their own concerns. Which may be why Collette Cowin, the solicitor, associates the Prime Minister with an erosion in people's access to justice, through the cuts in the legal aid budget. 'This is disappointing, considering he himself came from low beginnings,' she says. 'It affects people's ability to take matters to court, particularly family matters such as divorce.' It also explains Susan Paterson's criticism: 'John Major's not doing very much - nothing at all, in fact - for my chauffeur business. Companies are not using chauffeur-driven cars for leisure, such as golfing and going to the theatre and restaurants.'

Samuel Heath, whose business is also going through a difficult period, is more analytical. 'These things didn't happen because of Mr Major as prime minister. The problem goes much further back: if anything, we are talking about the time when John Major was Chancellor of the Exchequer.' Nevertheless the Government's decision not to give direct help to the building market has made life 'so difficult that the rest of his administration can only go upwards from here'.

In almost all cases, people who are asked about Mr Major respond with statements about themselves. The Sicilian tailor in Accrington associates the Prime Minister's period in office with a disturbing trend. 'People want repairs rather than new clothes,' he said. 'I have noticed recently that many don't pick up the repaired suits because they cannot pay. Now I have to ask for a deposit. It hurts me so much.'

Similarly David Drummond, a merchant navy radio/electronics officer, said from his Berkshire home: 'We were one of the greatest maritime nations in the world. We are now virtually non-maritime, with few ships now carrying British seafarers and training down to a trickle.' He softened. 'Major has been tarnished unjustifiably by the recession. He comes across as the man in the street - not very inspiring, but as autocratic as Thatcher.' And hardened again. 'If only we could get through to him and his ministers about the plight of seafarers and their feelings. But it's like trying to talk to a deaf aunt.' Mike Newman, who begs in the London Underground, is little different. 'I don't really think he has performed at all. There's been nothing in his performance except maybe a couple of days of good weather. There's something else. Since the last election, you often have to queue for begging patches. Everyone wants a turn at it. Then skinheads beat us up and steal our money. That's the kind of society we're in.'

What is surprising is to find that so little affection for Mr Major is manifested among grass-roots Conservative supporters. Some seem put out at having being given victory while denied adventure. Others feel let down for different and only vaguely defined reasons. John Linley, an east London monumental mason, again peered through his own prism to judge the Tory leader. 'The Prime Minister isn't dynamic enough,' he ventured. 'He just meanders along. Meanwhile, we have to squeeze our supplies. People are choosing a pounds 1,000 granite headstone rather than the pounds 1,200 one they would have chosen 18 months ago. Cemetery monuments aren't being cleaned regularly because people can't afford it. Some of us are going under.'

Quotes on the road from Brixton to Downing Street

It's a long way from the back streets of Brixton to the green fields of Huntingdon. Speech to Huntingdon Tories 1979

Inflation must go. Ending it cannot be painless. The harsh truth is that if it isn't hurting it isn't working. Oct 1989

I think we need a classless society and we need to have social mobility. I'm one of the few people in government who actually remember what a thrill it was when my salary moved up to pounds 2,000 a year. Nov 1990

It's a long way from Brixton to No 10 Downing Street. Nov 1990

Well who'd a thought it? To Cabinet, as new PM, Nov 1990

We have set an exchange rate for sterling and I don't anticipate moving outside that range. I am wholly unrepentant about the exchange rate I chose.

Nov 1990

Politics is like playing dice. You never quite know what's going to turn up, but it's very exciting. Jan 1991

Idealism, yes. But practical idealism. Democracy. Plain common-or-garden decency. It is those values I believe in. Commonsense values. Conservative values. March 1991

Game, set and match for Britain. Dec 1991, after the Maastricht summit

The government that did not make mistakes has not yet been elected. Jan 1992

I believe the ingredients are now in place to come out of the recession. Feb 1992

A country isn't at ease with itself if it's a laughing-stock abroad. Feb 1992

I always clam up when people ask me personal questions. There are things in my childhood that I simply can't remember and don't want to remember. March 1992

I know what it's like to be a family up against the odds. There were times when we didn't know whether we would even be able to eat. March 1992

Some vegetables I am fond of . . . Peas I am relatively neutral about. April 1992

I hate prejudice and I loathe snobbery. I particularly hate prejudice based on colour or religion, of which there is still, alas, too much . . . This is one of the few things that makes me so angry that I have to say things I would otherwise regret. March 1992

There is going to be no devaluation, no realignment. Sept 1992

Let us not waste time looking back. Oct 1992

If society wants to protect itself it must condemn crime, not condone it. Oct 1992

Even the dreariest of 0-0 draws on a wet afternoon can seem attractive in comparison with those red boxes. Oct 1992

Modesty may be an attractive quality, but as a nation we carry it too far. Nov 1992

I was in short trousers; we had ration cards; Hitler had been dead for only seven years. They were, I remember, happy days. (On the year 1952) Nov 1992

The Citizen's Charter may not be for the man in the Rolls- Royce. It is for the man in the beaten-up car, stuck behind the Rolls-Royce. Jan 1993

I have sat in the Cabinet for six years now. It just seems like 60. Feb 1993

(Photograph omitted)