Industry in Crisis: Unemployment: Major's support begins to wane in the establishment heartlands: Some former allies are becoming increasingly critical of the Government's economic record, Stephen Ward reports

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THE TIME when the Conservatives could be seen as the party of the Establishment, overlapping seamlessly with the leaders of the Church, the professions, industry and the City, passed with the 1960s.

But while the party has not had a public school-educated leader for a quarter of a century, there remains a less automatic, but still assumed area of support for the government of the day and the Tory party. Alarmingly for John Major, opposition is now coming from areas of this establishment where he might have expected backing.

One bitter critic was Sir Simon Gourlay, who farms in Kent, and until last year was president of the National Farmers' Union, an organisation often accused by small farmers of being hand-in-glove with the Ministry of Agriculture. He does not blame the Government for what has happened to agriculture, recognising that European Community policy is hard to alter.

But on the wider performance of Mr Major's team he is vitriolic. 'I find it profoundly depressing that we seem to be facing the prospect of 4 million unemployed, with all the social upheaval that will involve. There doesn't seem to be any fresh thinking to get the economy on the move again,' he said.

He was abroad in Europe on 'Black Wednesday', when the pound plummeted. 'I almost felt ashamed to be British, the way the Government appeared to be wanting to blame everybody else in Europe for the fact that their economic policies had come completely unstuck . . . I do feel the Government has failed abysmally to get across what Maastricht really does mean and doesn't mean. The most depressing thing has been the adherence to a number of ideological principles which seem to have fallen apart and changed as time has evolved.'

He favoured privatisation, but said it seemed to have got further and further from the market place and become more and more ideologically motivated. 'The current crop, which seems likely to involve BR and coal, seems sheer lunacy.'

However, the Government still has its supporters. Before the general election, a group of more than 40 businessmen signed a letter to the Times affirming belief in the party.

'We believe businessmen should support the party which, since 1979, has been actively and successfully promoting the renewed spirit of enterprise in the British people. This spirit will bring growing prosperity to Britain in the 1990s,' they wrote.

At least one of them, Stanley Kalms, chairman of the Dixons electrical chain, which has seen profits fall but turnover increase, stands by his position that effectively the recession is an act of God inflicted on the world.

'We're going through a very tough patch and I have to say that with all honesty if I put myself in the PM or the Chancellor's shoes I can't see what else he can do at this point in time. It's easy to criticise, but I have to say you shouldn't criticise until you've put on the other guy's moccasins. As I put them on I have to say it's tough out there. I can't see immediately what we should do except press on and be a little more positive in our approach.'

He said he had met 'quite a few' of his co-signatories recently, and many still shared his support for the Government. 'Some have been affected more than others,' he said. 'The bottom line is: I don't think John Smith has an alternative policy. We're all in it together and can't find a better solution.'

The Conservatives had delivered the policies they had promised in the election, on inflation and on Maastricht. 'If we panicked and went for short- term policies, I'd turn my back and say that was not what was promised.'

The engineering sector takes a different view. Neil Johnson, director- general of the Engineering Employers' Federation, which has 500 members, said: 'A policy of waiting for something to turn up is demonstrably not going to provide the sort of positive results industry has the right to expect.'

He gave a series of interviews in similar vein earlier this week in response to growing anger from every region, and since that onslaught has received hundreds of messages of congratulation, and none of dissent.

Lord McColl of Dulwich, director of surgery at Guy's Hospital, London, and a long-time Tory supporter, believes it is unfair to criticise the Government for Britain's economic ills.

'It seems to me the world is in recession. There are riots by unemployed workers in Japan, so it seems to be across the board. It seems to have something to do with the fact that the Russian empire has collapsed, and the unified Germany taking on this huge debt and I'm not surprised the whole thing's in turmoil. If we were still on a war footing, industry turning out tanks and so on, we wouldn't be in this mess, but it's a question of which you prefer. It seems to me that the reason we'd better get into Europe is international peace,' he said. Asked if the Government was doing all it could, he said: 'That's the key thing. I know John Major very well, and I basically trust him. I've always backed him and I still back him. He's in a difficult position and he's the sort of guy who will keep his cool and weather the storm.'

Scientists have popularly been seen as a beleaguered group since 1979, but Lord Porter of Luddenham, president of the Royal Society in the second half of the 1980s, and Professor of Photochemistry at Imperial College, London, while choosing not to comment on the economy, said the Government's science policy since the election had been encouraging.

William Waldegrave was the first minister since Lord Hailsham to be dedicated specifically to science, and every scientist he had spoken to had been impressed after meeting him. 'But he's done the easy bit of listening. We watch with interest to see what he does,' Lord Porter said.

Sir Roy Strong, writer, historian and director of the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1974-87, supported the early years of Margaret Thatcher's government. Asked about her successors today, he said: 'I'm absolutely shattered when I look at them. I can hardly bear to turn the television on to watch the news. I don't know how they go on. Where do they think they're going? I see no vision at all.'

He said everybody he knew had been hit by the recession, and although he was established and his children grown up, he could see little hope for the young. Increasingly talented ministers have been replaced by inferiors. 'Just look at the dearth of oratory,' he said.

He is especially critical of Mr Major. 'Norma (Major) seemed like a sensible down-to-earth woman, like Mrs Bush, then she was packaged up and put on the cover of Tatler, like Princess Di. That sums it up, doesn't it?'

(Photograph omitted)