LAST Tuesday evening John Major sat down to dinner at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors with 60 pro- European Tory MPs. The pounds 35-a-head meal was not particularly memorable and the occasion was frequently interrupted so that MPs could go to the Commons to take part in votes on the Maastricht Bill. The Prime Minister's mere presence, of course, was enough to incense hard-line Euro-rebels, though there was little in what was said they could object to.

Most of the chatter was about Britain's role in Europe after Maastricht and how it would approach the next inter-governmental conference in 1996. The Prime Minister did, however, make it abundantly clear that he felt at home. And at one point he was overheard joking about the irony that, just a year after fighting his first general election as Prime Minister, he was beginning to look like one of the elder statesmen of Europe.

There was nothing vainglorious in this. With so many of his counterparts around Europe either unseated or in difficulty, he could well find at the end of the Parliament that he is a doyen at EC summits. Moreover, the remark suited the mood, for at that moment both Mr Major and his mainstream Tory supporters were at last ready to look on the bright side.

The previous week, by winning a crucial Commons vote to sit all night, the Government had made a breakthrough on the Maastricht Bill, injecting a new mood of optimism; the fiasco over pit closures had been brought to a conclusion without casualities in the Commons. There was real evidence of economic recovery. Above all, Mr Major had survived one of the worst years of political crisis faced by any prime minister since the 1940s.

A year after the election, there are two ways of looking at Mr Major's future. One is that the Maastricht Bill will be passed, that the Tory divisions will heal, that the economy will continue improving and that a 1997 election victory is in prospect. The other is that he cannot escape the forces putting his premiership at risk over the treaty, that he could be forced to resign by a defeat on the Social Chapter and that he personally will be exposed as having brought calamity upon his party.

Listen to the cruel words of a prominent MP on the Tory right: 'Most prime ministers have been common men - or in one case woman - with uncommon abilities. Even Wilson was brilliantly clever. Thatcher had a sort of muscular intellect. Is he just a common man with common abilities?'

Charges of day-to-day incompetence are rarely made against Mr Major because they don't stick. One MP who knows him well and disagrees with him on Europe says: 'He's a superb political tactician.' Even the MP who raised the question of his ability admitted that the root of his doubts was that he and his colleagues on the Euro- sceptic right had been told that Mr Major was their man. 'We won't buy a pig in a poke again. This party is a nationalist one before anything else. The reason that the collapse of ERM caused so much discontent in constituencies, even among people who disagreed with the policy, was that it was a national humiliation. It made Britain look bad.'

Just how bad this year has been is still reflected in the opinion polls. A problem for Mr Major is that, unlike Margaret Thatcher, he minds about being popular; but like her, at least at present, he isn't, as the graph below shows. It is worth remembering that until last autumn Mr Major had no experience of being unpopular at all. While Margaret Thatcher came into office with four bumpy years as the 'milk snatcher' Education Secretary behind her, he had a smooth and seemingly effortless rise to the top. Unlike virtually all his 20th-century predecessors, Mr Major has had to learn to take the knocks after, not before, reaching the pinnacle of his political career.

Chatting with a select group at one of Lord Archer's famous parties last Christmas, Mr Major characterised his own psychic journey as Prime Minister in three phases. The first was that he had to pinch himself in amazement to realise that he was really there. The second was deep depression as he faced a level of criticism that he had never previously encountered, coupled with real doubt about whether he should carry on at all. And the third was a decision to shrug off his doubts, press on and do the best he could.

To judge by the comments of his closest colleagues last week, this is a pretty accurate summary. First, it was - and occasionally still is - slightly incredible to him that he should be in Downing Street at all. One official who worked with him at the Treasury says of the period after he succeeded Baroness Thatcher: 'I think he probably lay in the bath, hurled the soap in the air and thought: 'Heavens I'm Prime Minister. I can invite Alec Bedser and Peter May to lunch and they actually come'.'

The nation, grateful after 11 years of his predecessor not to be harangued, rewarded him first with a honeymoon period, reinforced by his own quiet pursuit of the Gulf war, and then with a general election victory which was very much of his own making and against the economic odds.

But then came Black Wednesday. Senior ministers are still cautious about describing the mood of panic which overcame the Government, but that Mr Major was deeply shaken by it is not in doubt. 'It was particularly difficult for those of us who had never experienced a big crisis before,' said one. 'And John Major had never really experienced even a little one.'

This, then, was the second phase. It was only temporarily relieved by the trouncing of the Euro-rebels at the party conference in Brighton, for that was quickly followed by the debacle of Michael Heseltine's announcement of coal mine closures. Not even Mr Major's closest circle put all the blame for this on Mr Heseltine; the Prime Minister chaired the crucial meetings before the announcement, but, like his colleagues, was mesmerised by the detail and failed to see the big picture. Nevertheless, one minister says: 'He felt very badly let down indeed.'

Yet he did not sacrifice Mr Heseltine any more than he had sacrificed Norman Lamont. 'He knew he had to save Michael,' says one Cabinet minister. 'That was partly loyalty, but partly it was sensible politics. He didn't want Michael on the backbenches.' This was perhaps the lowest point of all; in the October aftermath of the pits U-turn and on the eve of the knife-edge paving debate on Maastricht, he said in private that he felt like a man 'walking over hot coals with poisonous vipers underneath them'. The low politics of keeping Mr Heseltine were quickly vindicated; it was he who, alerted to the parliamentary perils by two of his own right-wing ministers, invented the concession on the timing of Maastricht ratification which saved the day.

But if this was the low point of the second phase it also led quickly to the third. Those who have known him longest insist Mr Major has always been personally tough. But several colleagues attest to a hardening against criticism in this period. 'He went through the burn,' says one. 'He took on a bit of steel. And he started to worry less about the press.'

Lady Thatcher was famously indifferent to the press, even though, in the words of one Cabinet minister: 'She read the newspapers more than she liked to let on.' But John Major still has a full set of morning papers delivered to his flat at 10 Downing Street and attaches high importance to his newspaper interviews - most of which have been with friendly, middle-market papers. The recent arrival of Gordon Reece, Lady Thatcher's famous image maker, is another sign of the importance he attaches to improving relations with the Tory press.

Some friends of Gus O'Donnell, the Treasury civil servant whom Mr Major brought with him as press secretary, suspect Mr Reece of being behind a Daily Mail story last week that O'Donnell's star was on the wane. But one senior minister who sees Mr Reece regularly denies that his presence is threatening to Mr O'Donnell. 'Gus's good relationship with the Lobby depends on the fact that he deals with political correspondents and not their editors. People like Gordon and (Sir) Tim Bell are good at telling him what editors of the Mail and the Express think, at having the common sense to say: 'Look they couldn't give a stuff about Maastricht; what they're worried about is law and order'.'

The decision to sue the New Statesman has also been seen by some of Mr Major's critics as stemming from over- sensitivity. Not true, says one of his closest associates. The magazine could, he argues, have extracted itself with a handsome and prominent apology. 'If we wanted to close anything down, which we don't, we'd have probably picked the Spectator.' And it is indeed the neo-Thatcherite Spectator-Sunday Telegraph tendency which most vexes Downing Street. 'Of course part of it is their opposition to Maastricht, but part of its just snobbery,' observes one close Major associate.

The alleged hardening towards press criticism is matched, some ministers say, by a subtle change in his handling of Cabinet from the famously consensual style of early days. An official says: 'Now when he sums up he'll give a steer too. He's more likely to make it clear what he wants.' He is famous in Whitehall for painstaking determination to 'get it right', taking several meetings - for example with the relatively trivial issue of the siting of the London School of Economics - where Lady Thatcher would have dispatched the matter in one. And that has been reinforced if anything by the trauma of coal. 'He is determined to be much more hands-on with the difficult politicial issues,' says one senior official, citing as an example the announcement on the Tomlinson report on London hospitals.

One right-wing minister draws another contrast with the Cabinet of Thatcher days. 'She would say: 'Unemployment is at 3 million. That's awful. What we are doing about it?' He's more likely to say: 'The unemployment figures are going to be presentationally very difficult. How are we going to

handle them?'.'

Ministers are curiously unsure about whom he listens to most closely for advice on domestic politics. Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, is a close friend and ally; Lord Wakeham remains the Cabinet's chief fixer; Kenneth Clarke has been consulted on several occasions in the past few months; Gus O'Donnell is part of the inner circle and David Mellor maintains close contact, despite his disgrace.

Above all, perhaps, there is Sarah Hogg, head of his Policy Unit. Ms Hogg is by no means universally popular with ministers, but has strong defenders. 'John will say to Sarah: 'Sort out this problem between departments'. Someone has to lose and the one who does always complains.' Other officials argue that her importance is sometimes exaggerated. 'The head of the Policy Unit depends on a good relationship with the private office. They're the people who really count.' This source insists that the most powerful figure on Mr Major's staff is Alex Allen, the Grateful Dead fan who is his Principal Private Secretary.

Mr Allen's task is to establish his master's will and then ensure that it is executed. That may not be as easy as it looks. The most frequent criticism of Mr Major is that many of his medium- term goals remain unclear. 'He's good at low politics and he's good at high politics - dealing with Yeltsin and Clinton and so on,' says one official who worked closely with him at the Treasury. 'But he's not good on policy.' A minister puts it differently: 'He's an ex-whip. He's a superb short- term tactician. What he's got to find is a strategy.'

It is not even as if Mr Major has no beliefs, though he is often quite private about them. A tiny example is that he hates foxhunting, but has been surprisingly reticent about it. Some of his hardest-nosed Treasury officials quickly realised that he cared about poverty. He is genuinely against discrimination, on grounds of race or sex. Among those who attest to that is Ken Livingstone, who liked and admired him when they were on opposite sides in Lambeth Council and who recently described a conversation he had with Mr Major in the mid-1980s in which he remarked to the future Prime Minister that he was surprised he could put with Lady Thatcher. Mr Major's reply, Mr Livingstone claimed, was: 'One day I'll be able to do what I want.'

This chimes with a comment made by a senior Cabinet minister shortly after the 1990 leadership election, when he said: 'No one seems to realise that John was the most left-wing of the three candidates.'

Yet - and here is one of the fundamental paradoxes - it was the right who delivered him to Downing Street. It was Lord Tebbit who publicly identified him first as a future Prime Minister and Lady Thatcher who rang wavering backbenchers to urge them to vote for Mr Major. In other words, his base in the Conservative Party is what is now at risk as hostility has built over Maastricht. As one Cabinet minister put it: 'He sees himself as Thatcher's successor. The trouble is that she doesn't see him as her successor any more.'

In fact the right is divided on this issue, as on much else; some MPs on the right believe he still presents the only chance, once Maastricht is over, of both uniting the party and continuing to promote neo-Thatcherite policies such as public spending cuts and privatisation. Equally, there are those on the left of the party who would like to see him get Maastricht out of the way and use his party conference speech in October to make a decisive break with Thatcherism.

The overwhelming temptation is to demand that the real John Major stands up. As one senior Tory put it: 'Probably he should say what is true, look I'm not an ideologue I'm a pragmatist. I want a better and more prosperous Britain for all and I'm going to try to get it. That's all there is to it.' But with a narrow majority and a party in civil war it seems he cannot yet 'do what he wants'. Even after a triumphant election victory, which delivered him the mandate that was going to set him free, the real John Major is still watching, waiting, imprisoned by the one issue, Europe, which still threatens to split his party in two.

What they say: 'He is no one, Everyman. Not red, blue, green - just grey'

John Major is the no-change, no-majority Prime Minister and he has none of the policies our country needs for the future.

Neil Kinnock

John Major is such a nice guy that working for him makes everything worthwhile.

Gus O'Donnell

He's a constipated little Limey.

American photographer

He is no one; he is Everyman. He is a worthy exponent of the new politics: not red, blue or even green; just grey.

Robert Harris

It's quite a change to have a Prime Minister who hasn't got any political ideas at all.

Michael Foot

He has negative charisma. He is an ordinary man in an extraordinary position. That rather appeals to people.

Sir Robin Day

We could lose him completely in a light grey. He could wear cocoa.

Fran Moscow, president of the Federation of Image Consultants

I am only just getting used to being more popular than John Major.

Arthur Scargill

He was happiest as Chancellor.

Norma Major

He has a public image as a gentle, kind, truthful and capable man. But don't ever underestimate John Major. There's real steel there.

Jeffrey Archer

John Major, who has all the virtues save charisma . . .

Julian Critchley

I confidently expect John Major to fight the next election with the slogan 'Don't blame me, I was only Prime Minister'.

Roy Hattersley

He is a pleasant, able and humble chap.

Sir Teddy Taylor

John Major is like Midas in reverse. Everything he touches turns to dross.

Frank Dobson, Labour employment spokesman

The strength of John Major is, so we are told, that he is an ordinary man . . . I want to be led by an extraordinary man.

Lord Mancroft, Tory peer

John Major is to leadership what Sir Cyril Smith is to hang-gliding.

John Prescott

He rose too fast from nothing to achieve . . . nothing. Nothing but failure. In the words of the great Lennon and McCartney song, he's a real nowhere man.

Daily Mirror

Let's face it John, you're a washout.

Jon Hacker, 'The Voice of Basildon'

I do not accept the idea that all of a sudden Major is his own man . . . There isn't such a thing as Majorism.

Margaret Thatcher

I did not vote for John Major for a 100 per cent loss of women in the Cabinet.

Teresa Gorman

I'm absolutely fed up with hearing how 'nice' Mr Major is. Nice is not necessarily an asset . . . I looked up 'nice' in my dictionary. The first definitions were: 'Foolishly simple, wanton, coy, over- particular'.

Michael Winner

He is a box-office disaster, who has failed to win any awards for his production - Honey, I Shrunk the Economy.

John Smith

(Photograph omitted)