But what about Major's self-respect: Andrew Marr examines the implications of the Prime Minister's new Thatcherite pose

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The Independent Online
PRIME MINISTER'S Question Time is rarely a revealing event. But yesterday's was of real, and unpleasant, significance: John Major gift- wrapped himself in the Union Jack and signalled that he was ready to pose as a Thatcherite nationalist in the European elections. Conservative right-wingers were jubilant. Pro-Brussels Tories were despairing. 'It made me feel physically sick,' said one long-suffering loyalist.

Both wings of the party concluded privately that Mr Major has decided he needs to woo the right to survive as Prime Minister. If so, he is probably correct. The centre of gravity in the Tory party is moving: as anti-Maastricht Tories have tweaked the Government's tail and got away apparently unpunished, so those wavering have been concluding that it is safe to drift into the Thatcherite camp. The rumble of an intellectual migration is unmistakable.

Recent parliamentary elections for Tory backbench committees, for the 1922 executive itself and for chairmanship of the right-wing 92 Group, have confirmed the trend. And with a series of essential European votes looming at Westminster this year, that arithmetic presents Mr Major with one hurdle after another.

The right's growing confidence has been boosted by the hard line on the qualified majority voting row coming from pro-European ministers. Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine know full well that if the worst befell Mr Major they would both be competing for right-wing backbench votes. Many have already adjusted to the idea of Mr Heseltine as a potential leader, though Baroness Thatcher will have nothing to do with that. She has told friends she would come out with a blazingly anti-Heseltine speech if he started looking like a threat to the Prime Minister. Mr Major's behaviour yesterday made it easier for her to back him.

Mr Hurd and his officials are working desperately hard for a deal, and it is still plausible, but everything Mr Major said makes compromise harder to achieve: he has given his right-wingers a taste of blood. For whatever reason, his raising of the stakes in the Commons was clearly deliberate and pre-planned.

So the idea that this row was all an unfortunate mistake, to be laid at the door of a bungling junior Foreign Office minister, looks ever less tenable. Douglas Hurd has told Tory MPs that a failure to resolve the impasse soon could scupper the enlargement of the European Union, and Downing Street believes there is still time to do a deal. But the anti-Maastricht brigade believes that the voting issue could be allowed to drag on to the EU summit in June. So the suspicion is starting to grow: is Mr Major preparing for the possibility of delaying enlargement after all, and fighting the June Euro-election campaign against a backdrop of crisis and nationalist enthusiasm?

It would turn the elections from being a referendum on Mr Major's leadership, which he cannot win, to a genuine contest on Europe, which he might. The anti-Maastricht MPs may regard such a conversion with private derision - yet they would surely play along in public.

But, though there is a long-term problem over voting in the European Council, this would be an extraordinarily risky tactic. It would infuriate the pro-Europeans Mr Major used to side with. It would infuriate Tory Euro-candidates. It would infuriate the business lobby. It might be one policy-flip too far.

There is one small matter more. It would be unprincipled, dangerous, synthetic politics of the worst sort. Mr Major may feel he has nothing left to lose. It may seem a naive, even impertinent question; but what about his self-respect?