A YEAR AGO today, Sunday newspapers were divided: between those who expected Labour to form the next Government and those who thought that the Tories might still cling to power in a 'hung parliament'. Almost nobody believed - even as the first results came in the following Thursday night - that John Major could win anything like an overall majority. 'He Did It His Way' was one Tory tabloid headline the following weekend. And so he did, with his trusty soapbox, his unfathomable belief in the publicity value of visiting cold stores and old marshalling yards, his strange vowels, his puzzling invocation of 'alien' threats to 'the constitution'. Sages shook heads and jowls. The voters would not care a fig about the constitution and thought soapboxes went out with Aneurin Bevan. Yet Mr Major confounded not just the pundits, but history. No prime minister this century had won an election in the depths of a recession.
What has happened to that Tory hero? He is reviled, almost daily, by newspapers whose support his party once took for granted. The backbenches, and even some Tories of ministerial rank, rumble with dissatisfaction; there are growing hints of unfavourable comparisons with his defeated rival, Douglas Hurd. A Mori opinion poll, in the Times last week, shows that only 17 per cent of voters think Mr Major is a capable leader and that only 8 per cent believe he has sound judgement.
The very unexpectedness of the Prime Minister's victory last year meant that he carried no baggage: the programme was his; the style was his; the ministerial team was his. There can be no hiding place. If things have gone badly wrong, he alone is to blame. He may have been poorly advised or surrounded by incompetent ministers but a good prime minister would find himself new advisers, new ministers. In any career, there are those who climb the ladder, winning plaudits, only to find the top job beyond them. It has happened in politics - most notably to Anthony Eden, a distinguished Foreign Secretary who cracked under the pressures of the Suez crisis when he got to No 10. Is Mr Major a similar case? Is he, simply, not up to the job?
First, though, the case for the defence. It is easily forgotten that what now seem Mr Major's vices - his greyness, his lack of vision or strong opinion, his very ordinariness - seemed virtues after a decade of Margaret Thatcher. In the glad, confident morning after the Gulf war, the newspaper columnist Robert Harris, not a natural admirer of Tory prime ministers, wrote: 'There have been no instructions to the nation to 'Rejoice]'; no denunciations of treachery at the BBC; no fake Churchillian bombast; no Saatchi and Saatchi deep breathing exercises to convey sincerity.' It is all very well for us now to demand strong leadership but a more consensual, less confrontational style of government was exactly what we sought in 1990. The great ideological battles of the 20th century, people thought, were over. John Major was the Prime Minister for what some greeted as the end of history - 'the quintessential politician of our age', as Harris described him, who 'does not inspire many people but does not put many off either'. Or, as his biographer Edward Pearce wrote, 'Major has never expressed an unnecessary opinion'.
Much of the criticism of John Major comes from the dispossessed Thatcherite right, yearning for a more gung-ho attitude to the excesses of public spending and, above all, for a more nationalistic stance on Europe. There is, too, an unpleasant strain of snobbery among some metropolitan critics who believe that, if a Tory leader did not go to a proper school or university, he should at least keep away from Little Chefs and buy more stylish suits.
The defence may also plead that many of Mr Major's difficulties are not of his making. Though he was a party to the economic policy errors of the later 1980s, he was not directly responsible for the more fundamental neglect, throughout the Thatcher years, of investment in favour of private consumption. (Objection, m'lud. The defendant shows few signs of wishing to reverse this order of priorities.) It is not his fault that he has inherited a deeply divided party whose travails on Europe may yet lead to one of the great fissures of British politics, comparable to those created by Ireland and by free trade. Europe brought down a leader who triumphed in three general elections and one, moreover, who enjoyed comfortable majorities in the House of Commons.
The case for the defence, however, almost makes the case for the prosecution. These are excuses, alibis, pleas in mitigation. Significantly, Mr Major himself is apt to reach for them when challenged. In an interview with Robin Oakley, the BBC's Political Editor, in December, he observed: 'Somebody once asked Harold Macmillan what determined policy, and he said: 'Events, dear boy, events]' Well, events determined our policy and I think there was a good deal of bad luck.'
Finding positive examples of Mr Major's achievements - or of policies, firmly and coherently pursued, that could command support - is more difficult. He has proved (surprisingly, in view of his inexperience) an effective international statesman. He helped rescue the Gatt talks from the French threat of sabotage. To the admiration of his fellow EC leaders, he pulled off a successful negotiation at Maastricht and kept the treaty alive at Edinburgh. But these are worrying times for the British people. What has he offered them?
Maastricht itself? Mr Major has signally failed to sell the merits of greater European integration; rather, he has presented Maastricht as the vehicle through which he cleverly kept bothersome foreigners out of our hair. He may have eschewed Margaret Thatcher's nationalist rhetoric during the Gulf war but he has often talked about the Maastricht negotiations as though they were the Battle of Goose Green. The Citizen's Charter? It sounds like something out of an Orwellian satire, and most voters have never heard of it. The strategy for growth? Little more, it seems, than an attempt to take credit for an economic upturn that must come eventually. The classless society? Mr Major has tinkered with the honours' system but shows no interest in reform of the House of Lords or of the judiciary and presides over a government that seems determined to bring back selective schools. Privatisation? This, like many policies (such as the drive for more schools to opt out of council control), is obeisance to the tired nostrums of That cherism. Like a schoolboy copying out Latin verse, without understanding what it means, Mr Major knows privatisation will get him full Tory marks but cannot explain how it will improve, say, rail services. The conquest of inflation? Perhaps, but at the cost of prolonged recession and 3 million unemployed. In any case, what Mr Major claimed as the cornerstone of his anti-inflationary policy collapsed on Black Wednesday.
This brings us to Mr Major's greatest reversal, and the most important reason for doubting his capabilities as a leader. He won the election on a false prospectus. He was not the first politician to do so - but his mistake, and the country's misfortune, was that he believed his own propaganda. He thought that recovery would come soon enough and strongly enough to sustain the pound at its parity within the exchange rate mechanism (ERM). As a result, he and Mr Lamont spurned opportunities for a managed and orderly devaluation of sterling and even boasted to a newspaper editor that the pound could overturn the mark as the supreme European currency. Britain thus left the ERM in confusion and national humiliation after a hugely expensive attempt to support the insupportable. Mr Major then compounded the errors by trying to pretend that nothing important had really changed and, worse still, sustaining his Chancellor, Norman Lamont, in office. Mr Lamont's survival destroys not only this Cabinet's economic credibility but that of future ones. Why should anybody believe the pronouncements of a British Chancellor - or, for that matter, of any British minister - if they know that he can survive such a cataclysmic collapse of policy?
Low politics perhaps explains Mr Lamont's continuation in office - he has acted as a lightning conductor for dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister. And nobody denies that Mr Major is a deft politician. Quite likely, he could win the next election, if it is timed to coincide with the peak of economic recovery and if Labour remains a weak alternative. But Tory MPs should look beyond narrow electoral considerations. Black Wednesday was a devastating blow to the authority of Mr Major and his government. His performance since suggests that he either failed to grasp the need to restore that authority or that he is incapable of doing so. He still has time to prove his critics wrong, but not much. Only a year from his election triumph, Tory MPs are right to suspend judgement on John Major, but they cannot wait indefinitely.