Prime Minister wins but the price is yet to be paid

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The Independent Online
IT'S GONE. The disappearance of the Maastricht treaty into the black hole of yesterday's news will transform much of the political landscape. The argument which has distracted and weakened the Prime Minister for a year is settled. So he stays? John Major's leadership is now secure? Ah, well . . . that is a rather different matter.

He has won himself a break, a political break as well as a recreational one. Future Tory rebellions will come, but will not touch the core of the Government's purpose. Once again, ministers can focus on the things the rest of the country worries about: unemployment, crime and war abroad. Most people will be delighted: for those to whom Maastricht mattered, it came to mean everything; but for everyone else it became an irritating background drone, clogging the news, diminishing politics. The leaders bickered, a nation yawned.

But the Prime Minister has paid a heavy price for unblocking the political channels. He is now able to try to re-establish his political authority through his domestic agenda. But to do that, he has had to surrender his original dream of reconciling Britain to Europe. For the Tory rebellion did not turn out, in the end, to be futile.

The anti-Maastricht dissidents have narrowed the parameters of Tory Europeanism. After this week, no Conservative prime minister will return to the Commons with a treaty on deeper European integration - not, perhaps, for the rest of this century. British adherence to a fixed-rate exchange system (if one survives) is wholly off the Tory agenda. A single currency is now unthinkable. Douglas Hurd must frame policy in the run-up to the next treaty in 1996 by seeking a consensus with British nationalists whose views he regards with contempt.

The Cabinet - Kenneth Clarke as well as John Major - has had its wings clipped by the rebels. No more 'heart of Europe' from this government, I think. Nervousness about the thin majority may also mean it soft- pedals on controversial domestic policies. Expect a slow and exceedingly cautious approach to rail privatisation. Expect a compromise over the Sheehy police reforms.

That being so, what are Mr Major's own prospects? Not happy. He is still hamstrung by a narrow majority, armed with only limited eloquence. A Commons vote can transform the political landscape, but it cannot transform a prime minister. Mr Major made decent, honest arguments in the Commons this week, which go with the grain of European concern about competitiveness and employment. But John Smith, with weaker arguments, held the chamber in his hands, self-assured and witty, turning the knife relentlessly in Tory wounds.

The next session is unlikely to give Mr Smith another opportunity as golden as yesterday's. But Mr Major will return to the chamber in the autumn unsure as to whether he will be able to dominate the Commons as a national leader must. His friends believe he has grown tougher over the past few days. But to win through another year he will, in some sense, need to become a different person. That is possible - but inherently unlikely.

Mr Major will not be forced out, though, until the Conservative Party has hard evidence that economic recovery is not being followed by its own political recovery. That may come soon, but at the moment the point of greatest danger looks like next spring. In particular, MPs and officials will be watching how the Liberal Democrats perform in the West Country during June's European elections. If they win the two seats of Somerset and Dorset West, and Cornwall and Plymouth, then the alarms will start shrieking at Conservative Central Office.

Those gains would bring nearer the ultimate Conservative nightmare - a Lib Dem breakthrough in the South-west and southern England. One shrewd Labour observer reckoned that the Lib Dems could take 30 to 40 seats from the Tories. If they did, a Lib-Lab government would be much likelier and so, therefore, would be voting reform: the Tories could be broken, out of office for a generation. This perception, as much as the Christchurch by-election, goes a long way to explaining the virulence and personal savagery of ministerial attacks on Paddy Ashdown over the past few days. For the Cabinet, the Lib Dems are turning into the most threatening enemy.

Just as Mr Major won yesterday by dramatically upping the ante, so those national political stakes would do for him. A traditional Tory 'magic circle' would agree his time was up. A knock on the door. A half-embarrassed cough. 'Ahem, Prime Minister . . .' That outcome still nestles somewhere between the plausible and the likely.

After this extraordinary, melodramatic week we will never know whether Mr Major's threat of a general election was a real one. I have my doubts. It was desperate stuff. The Cabinet, desperate too, might have preferred to ditch Mr Major and support another leader who would have offered a referendum - any ploy to avoid electoral annihilation. At any rate, the threat had its desired effect. It saved Mr Major in the short term. But his party will have judged this rally a remission, not a cure.