THE COURTSHIP ritual danced on the White House lawns by President Clinton and Prime Minister Major was, as Peter Riddell wrote in the Times recently, 'doomed to succeed'.

One could have guessed on the Tuesday that before Wednesday was out it would be 'Bill' and 'John' and smiles all round. By Thursday Foreign Office officials would be privately briefing journalists on the quite extraordinary warmth which Mr Major had already succeeded in injecting into the bonding. By the weekend we would know that the Special Relationship is - well, extra special, for John and Bill. A few disagreements of a practical kind remain, of course . . .

The greater part of all this hyperbole is pre-scripted and could be press released with impunity, before any meeting of any British Premier with any American counterpart, however cordially they detested each other. The performance takes on the air of an old Daily Mail report of one of those matings of Mr Heath's panda, flown abroad for a rendezvous with a foreign sweetheart. As grumpy as the beasts may appear, it is necessary to find something joyful in the occasion. Only later, when the offspring fails to appear, or does appear, to be rolled on and squashed by a parent, do we find it all mattered less than we thought. (In this case, the mating gets off to the worst of starts as the whole zoo knows that sources close to the British panda did their best to keep the US one out of the cage. There was another panda in John's life at the time: George.)

Reports of John Major's success at budding personal friendships in the political world are not all hype, nor are they entirely routine. They are the distinguishing mark of his career. He would never have won Lady Thatcher's affection (plenty had her respect) if he had not been nice as well as clever. He would never have been elected to replace her as leader without the intervention of so many friends, and the notable absence of enemies, on the backbenches. He would not have kept Lady Thatcher's support, and later her neutrality, and later her silence, and now her ambivalence, for as long as he did without effort and charm.

The charm was deployed from day one. When, early in his prime ministership, John Major went to Bonn to forge the first link of what was meant to be an Anglo-German alliance with Helmut Kohl, the personal chemistry fast established between both men provoked what Boris Johnson described, in the Spectator (1 August, 1992), as little whoops and squeals of excitement among Foreign Office officials.

Even with Mitterrand he managed to calm the open hostility which had existed between the French President and our previous prime minister. Then there was the relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, only a few meetings old when he wrote to his friend in captivity after the attempted coup: '. . . Above all, Norma and I are desperately anxious about you and Raisa's well-being. We send you the love and heartfelt good wishes of the British people . . .' This was an intimacy (I think sincere) acquired with remarkable speed.

These may have been strengths. But friendship imposes debts, too, and John Major has been willing to honour them. To his obvious political cost, he has supported Cabinet chums in difficulty. The personal relationships in John Major's political life are plainly quite central to him, not just as a career strategist, nor only as a negotiating tactic, but as a man. What kind of man?

Having observed him from the outset when we both entered the Commons in 1979, I am certain that the ambition to be on good terms with people is quite instinctive. He pursues it with persistence and skill. He succeeds (where so many careerists fail) because his friendliness is genuine.

Added to sincerity is technique. The squeeze of the shoulder, the care he takes to give you his whole attention, and all the small civilities that accompany a natural gentleman, are carefully employed. Major can be generous with his time. He can take pains not to regulate his civility according to how much he thinks someone matters. People who do matter notice this. People who didn't matter have a way of mattering later. All this he knows. And in dealing with equals or political superiors he knows how to balance familiarity with respect.

Most important, he has the good manners and the brain quickly to grasp and properly to engage with the argument another puts. It is both flattering to those with whom he negotiates and expeditious of the business in hand. It was something Lady Thatcher never would do. Just as her insolence had its strengths, so his intellectual courtesy carries its dangers. But his reward is that, whereas a discussion with Lady Thatcher would leave you worried that at least one of you must be mad - and not at all sure which - the meeting of minds which Major promotes comforts with the thought that you are both clever, sensible, decent fellows.

I have emphasised technique because he so conspicuously has it. But I began by saying he was genuine. John Major sets store by personal relationships not just because he is a good and nice man, which he is, nor only because it works well for him, which it does, but because he can't help it. I honestly don't believe Major is capable of planned rational aggression. The consequence (of which more later) is that when he does turn nasty, he doesn't handle it at all well. We psychoanalyse at our peril, but it does seem that Major's childhood and adolescence were such as to drive a youth to choose one of three roads: defeat; rebellion; or collaboration.

Major chose collaboration: a careful (perhaps unconsciously studied) strategy to build security and win friendship in a world which might naturally have rejected the likes of him. It was a good strategy, perhaps the only one available. He would never have reached the House, and never have prospered there, without it. Practically speaking, he has needed friends.

Whether, beyond that, he has any emotional need to be liked by others, or any unreasoned fear of their dislike, it is impertinent to speculate. I'll risk the impertinence and temper it by remarking that it's certainly a problem I've had myself. To want to be liked by more than a few people, and by people one knows to be inferiors, is a problem. Fear of disfavour actually blocks the development of the few real friendships we do need.

Popularity is useful in politics, but can be achieved by cynical means and dispassionately. However useful, you should never need it personally. Whips and Tory constituency associations can smell insecurity like dogs. More dangerously, foreigners can smell it. Elevated to the status of policy, personal friendship has certain costs and limitations. The limitations of this strategy are, first, that it is not a strategy, but a screen. Though friendship may be the method by which you proceed, substantive differences will always surface in the end. There was no way, for instance, that the natural tensions between Lady Thatcher's view and Mr Major's could forever be hidden, nor her anger stifled. It might have been better to get the shoot-out over with early on. It might still.

In the end, Major got no further with Mitterrand than Thatcher. In the end, when Britain's interests (as Major saw them) diverged from those of Germany (as Kohl saw them), all that personal chemistry came to nothing - fizzed, indeed, into something toxic. And, in the aftermath of Black Wednesday, Mr Major could be heard in the members' dining room at the Commons soundly castigating his former German 'friends' for letting him down. Had he not learnt that, at the heart of policy, foreign as well as domestic, must lie the conflict of interests? When these collide, friendships fly away like morning mists. Good relations can help avoid the unnecessary arguments, but are helpless in the face of the necessary ones. Some of the arguments at home, in the EC, and across the Atlantic seem to me to be of the necessary kind.

Too great an emphasis on personal relationships between statesmen can exaggerate an impression of the freedom of action of either. In the end, Kohl had to bow to the Bundesbank. In the end, Major's Maastricht stance (a very arguable one) was wrecked by his own recalcitrant backbenchers. In the end, differences over trade, military deployment and our two world views will dominate the agenda of Anglo-American dealings. Friendliness in Washington can help, but how much?

These are limitations to friendship, not arguments against it. But arguments against it do exist. A statesman too concerned with good personal relations can end up losing the respect even of friends. It was interesting that Mr Major stayed out of the chamber of the Commons when Douglas Hurd stood on his head over the Government's changing legal advice regarding amendment 27 allowing Britain to opt out of the Social Chapter in the Maastricht treaty. His coyness over Europe with colleagues, junior and senior, is coming close to infuriating rebels, disappointing loyalists and baffling the undecided.

And there is another problem. Concentrating on Europe has taken him away from his own troops. Not just because he must be physically absent often (though he must) and preoccupied (though he is), but because backbenchers who had expected from him the tender loving care they missed with Lady Thatcher see, in his frantic attempts to keep Britain's allies onside, evidence that he loves foreigners more than he loves them. It's all smiles for Helmut, they complain: then he comes home and snaps at us. Backbenchers are complaining that the famous shoulder-squeeze has become rather peremptory since the last election.

Further, a political past spent avoiding conflict with associates and counterparts leaves you all at sea when the inevitable conflict comes. Fighting in the playground gives us useful maps of our own strengths and weaknesses, and those of others. It helps us guess who are our best allies, and where secret enemies may be found. It teaches us how to win, how to advance and how to retreat. It teaches us how, and how hard, and where, and where not, to press others - and when to hang back. It teaches us how to give in, how to kiss and make up. I am not sure Major possesses these maps. I wonder whether over the last decade he did enough fighting on the backbench playground. Like a cat at play, Lady Thatcher used to fight just for pleasure, sharpening her claws, pouncing, sparring all for practice.

But Mr Major sometimes looks like the Jeff of a Mutt-&-Jeff team who has lost his Mutt and is finding that the brandy and cigarettes alone are not doing the trick. This has seemed especially so in recent months in Europe, where memories of Lady Mutt are fading.

Finally, those who have set great store in keeping relationships sweet are often unpractised at being hurt. Mr Major tries hard, sometimes too hard, to stay friends with people; but there comes a point when something snaps. He can then become disproportionately angry. He feels betrayed and enormously aggrieved. The press call it peevishness or petulance, but it reflects real hurt. He then gets seriously ratty with people and ends up making lifelong enemies of colleagues who had been no more than tiresome, or silly. Nice guys, when we turn nasty, can make a terrible mess of it, usually because we've had so little practice and have bottled it up for too long.

I hope America turns out better than Germany or France. It is sad that, having intended to become the bridge-

builder between the US President and Chancellor Kohl and his friends, Major has lost Kohl to the Bundesbank, Bush to the US electorate, and inherited the legacy of the Tory party's pro-Republican intervention in the presidential campaign to clear up.

Incidentally, despite No 10's protestations, I don't believe that Norman Fowler, the Conservative Party chairman, would have acted without the express or implied permission of his boss over the Republican business. If he did, Major should have sacked him. But Norman's his friend. And it wouldn't have happened if he hadn't wanted to be George's friend. And now he wants to be Bill's friend, and . . . oh dear. There you go again, John.

This article first appeared in the 'Spectator'.

(Photograph omitted)