Low-key leader is right on target

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The Independent Online
AN ORDINARY Conservative has spoken. And ordinary Conservatives have liked what he said, offering him their affection. Nothing remarkable has happened. But something important has: this week in Blackpool, John Major's grip on power has

tightened.

His defence of his leadership after a terrible year was informal, loosely constructed, lacking in new ideas and unambitious. It made few demands on the party. But it will resonate.

It takes no particular courage to confess to the Tory party that you believe in decency, family values and business; that you're against child pornographers and tower blocks. But the case for Mr Major is that he is a common man with uncommon tenacity. This was a speech which half the country would find a cliche-ridden ramble and the other half would think a refreshing blast of commonsense. It was a very conservative Conservative address.

But if it aimed low, it smacked straight to the heart of the target. It reminded the Tory faithful that John Major is one of their own, as Lady Thatcher was always different, infinitely to be admired but a little alien. So she derides him as being uneasy with big ideas? So, he was saying, are most of us. We stick with the small ideas, the old ideas, the tested ideas. We are conservatives. Oh, and what, by the way, are you?

For there was a coded critique of the Thatcher years running through Mr Major's speech and it wasn't difficult to crack: they didn't appear. The 'golden age that never was' just somehow never cropped up. Homely nostalgia for the Fifties suffused the Winter Gardens as the Prime Minister spoke; the party must go back to its roots, return to basics, to 'old core values' and to 'old commonsense British values that should never have been pushed aside'.

So what does he think has been going on for the past 14 years, when millions of British children have been growing up under Tory administrations? At first sight, Mr Major's appeal to his party could have been mistaken for a bland recitation of Tory truisms, tailored only to soothe and reassure. But the more one ponders it, the more barbed it seems: what Mr Major implies is that the Thatcher years underplayed the basics in education, discipline and moral standards. And as he knows full well, most of the country would agree.

What he offers instead are the old Tory instincts: prisons, patriotism and privacy. There was little radicalism, little enthusiasm for more Thatcherite reform, no frenzy. He doesn't want to bad-mouth the other innately decent, modest, conservative leader John Smith, though there was a little gentle mockery. Let us not underestimate all this: England, at least, is a conservative, cautious, worried country.

As in all political speeches there was a big element of humbug. To pose as the defender of the Church and the Royal Family against the assault of trendy Britain was fatuous: the decline of the former is about the long, withdrawing roar of religious faith, while the Windsors have been in trouble because of a squalid compact between Tory tabloids and bird-brained princesses. Nor is it convincing to hear boasts about low taxation from a high-tax party. Nor was it pleasant to hear the self-dramatising assertion that 'I have risked and sacrificed more than most for what I so passionately believe in' coming from the mouth of a successful, relatively well-off career politician.

But in personal terms, Mr Major's self-depiction as an absolutely ordinary, normal Conservative was both accurate and shrewd. I am your man on the inside, he was telling the party: I speak like you, I think like you; whoever tries to get rid of me is trying to get rid of you. And as a result of what happened in Blackpool this week, he will be safer in power, at least in the short term.

The country remains angry, the Prime Minister is not loved. Still, the Tory party has pulled itself together. Rebellions this winter will be harder. And the malign influence of Lady Thatcher is waning. Not a bad hat-trick from the circus artist's son.

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