On the surface, their story is vivid and compulsive. The threat of slump and a series of political disasters did surprise a young and relatively vulnerable prime minister. Changing policy was agonising. General anger about the recession and innuendo about the mental competence of the Prime Minister fit neatly together in the public mind.
No doubt Mr Major is lonely. But he is rather less isolated this morning than the Thatcherites would have us believe. Policy counts more than tittle-tattle, so let us start with that. The scale of the economic U-turn emerging from Downing Street is astonishing and can hardly be underplayed. The new 'go for growth' policies to which Mr Major has been converted are uncannily similar to the favourite nostrums of John Smith and, before him, Neil Kinnock. The pre-election agreement among political leaders on exchange rate policy (a consensus on Treasury terms) has been replaced by a much broader agreement on growth (a consensus, basically, on Labour terms).
Journalistic hyperbole? Consider this, from Mr Major on Tuesday: 'A strategy for growth is what we need, a strategy for growth is what we're going to have . . . to put back into work those people who are not in work.' And this, from Labour's manifesto in April: 'The new government must get the economy out of recession, it must lay the foundations for the future. . . . We are determined to make a swift reduction in unemployment.'
When it comes to the 'how', we can safely assume that Labour in power, having mounted a similar desperate and unsuccessful defence of the pound, would be cutting interest rates in a similar way to Mr Major and Norman Lamont. But the similarities are more extensive, and reach further back than this week.
For instance, the Prime Minister wants to scrap Whitehall rules stopping private finance becoming involved in big public- sector road and rail projects. Before the election, Labour was promising to look at big capital projects, 'such as investment in railways and roads', to see if they needed 'private capital in joint projects'. For another instance, Michael Heseltine told the Tory conference how 'we as a nation - public and private together - strive for that tantalising prize of export- led growth which has eluded us'. To win it, he promised a new export drive and 15 'one-stop shops' working with chambers of commerce across Britain. Familiar? Labour's industrial manifesto said before the election that 'export-led growth is the only guarantee of sustainable growth'. It promised 'a revitalised and integrated export service', including (wait for it) a 'one-stop advisory network' working with chambers of commerce.
Enough for instances, though there are plenty more similarities between Mr Major's 'Britain Means Business' and Labour's 'Made in Britain'. If, through some unpredicted political cataclysm, the Government collapsed and a 1931-style national government were formed, including Mr Major, Mr Smith, Mr Heseltine and Gordon Brown, it could quickly agree on large sections of a common programme. Serious differences remain, of course; but on interest rates, the need for reflationary policies, and even the borderline between the private and public sectors (big questions), the party leaderships are pretty close.
Labour's Robin Cook, in a masterly speech yesterday, noted that his party's motion foreshadowed virtually everything the Government had done after the
pit-closure announcement. Quite right: but the same is true across a broader spectrum. The politicians concerned find this embarrassing (indeed, it is their professional duty to find it embarrass-
ing). But as the truth slowly dawns, many of their fellow citizens may find it
The people who find it most unreassuring are the hard-core Thatcherites. They attacked Mr Major for sterling's membership of the European exchange rate mechanism, and derided him when he was forced outside. They attacked him for closing mines, and are sneeringly contemptuous of the Heseltine U-turn. They furiously demanded a change in interest rate policy, and have been notably silent since it occurred. Oh yes, and they are suggesting that Mr Major has gone bonkers. You might almost think they had something against the man.
Well, they have, of course: they are determined to destroy the Maastricht Bill that he is equally determined to ratify. The 'national government' consensus is strong for the treaty, among Labour as well as Tory leaders. Here, as with his economic U-turn, Mr Major is not isolated at all - but the Thatcherites are. Not all the anti-Major feeling in the party can be put down to this, but the Prime Minister's friends think a lot can be. 'If the Maastricht Bill was withdrawn,' says one, 'the smears would stop overnight.' Occasionally, top-flight politicians crack up in office. So far, Mr Major hasn't. He has been proved wrong, but he has admitted the fact. It may be that this is a sign of sanity, not the reverse.Reuse content