Punishment for Major, warning for Smith

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The Independent Online
Any prediction about the result of the next general election based on these Newbury and local election results would be fatuous. But they ram home essential lessons that the big parties should have learnt by now. Above all, they point the way to a turbulent few years in British politics.

First, the victors. These polls vividly remind us that if Labour and the Liberal Democrats were prepared to work side-by-side, formally or informally, to build a broad movement of national reform, they could yet transform British politics. Otherwise, dividing the country between them as second-past-the- post alternatives to Conservatism, they are likely to continue to drift into irrelevance.

They differ on little that matters. If they refuse to draw the obvious conclusions, they will be the witting accomplices to a historic shift in the British system: semi-perpetual one-party government. Will they learn this lesson? It seems incredible that they might not; but, after the experience of the past year, we must be sceptical, even pessimistic. John Smith bears a huge responsibility.

For the Tories, the messages are equally important. Yet again, John Major faces the urgent need to assert his dominance or see his authority slither. The Tory voices raised against Norman Lamont are really a surrogate campaign against Mr Major himself. The Prime Minister is weak, go the whispers, so weak that he cannot bring himself to sack his deeply unpopular Chancellor.

Never mind that Mr Lamont's policies were, and are, Mr Major's. If Mr Major fails to reshuffle, the surrogate campaign against him will become a real one. But if Mr Lamont does go this summer, then we should be clear why: he will have been a blood sacrifice to demonstrate his leader's potency. Baroness Thatcher was never slow to wield the knife when feeling damaged or threatened - however well she knew the minister, however unfair it seemed. Now Mr Major will steel himself for butchery.

To instigate a widespread reshuffle, however, would stink of panic. When Mr Major arrived, he told key ministers they would be in their jobs for several years. Nothing could be more damaging for health, education, home affairs or the Foreign Office than a return to yearly changes, so that ministers feel they have to make a quick imprint on policy and scoot on, heedless of the consequences. It is bad government. Mr Major recognised that.

A reshuffle, anyway, is not the real answer. At Easter, the Independent argued that nothing less than a policy relaunch of Mr Major's government would do. It ought to consist of a long-term strategy for the rebuilding of Britain's wealth-creating base, and a Tory version of constitutional and political reform, thus addressing the big problems the country faces, and so giving the party a sense of direction.

That remains urgent. Mr Major is emphasising, in speech after speech, that he sees manufacturing and exporting as policy priorities. But what about the reform agenda? Yesterday morning's results were not only about recession or the perceived weaknesses of a single leader. They were about the long and bitter assault on local democracy, the years in which Tories seemed to forget their traditional insistence on local responsibility, on the small-scale, the contingent, the provincial hostility to centralised Whitehall power.

It was a historic mistake, for which they have been punished throughout the shire counties. It was more Baroness Thatcher's mistake than Mr Major's and the local government minister, John Redwood, seems to have recognised that something serious has gone wrong. But it will take time to regain the trust of local government, and Mr Major ought to start today. There are several years before the next election and the big factors still favour the Tories. But they are not invulnerable: if they fail to learn from this week, and the Opposition does learn, the next few years will be far less predictable than we thought.