Major's Woes: Chief hijacker piles on misery: The Right

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IT SEEMED the perfect way to relaunch John Major's beleaguered 'back to basics' initiative. Yet, from the very start, Michael Portillo's speech to the right-wing pressure group, Conservative Way Forward, in the chandeliered ballroom of a Park Lane hotel last Friday, had the hallmarks of impending disaster. It was, to say the least, ironic that grace was said by Lord Parkinson, the former Conservative Cabinet minister who resigned over his affair with his secretary.

Mr Portillo's speech did not, as expected, echo the agreed Cabinet line that 'back to basics' was about law and order and standards in education. Instead, Mr Portillo spoke about restoring faith in Britain and its parliament and the monarchy, and about dispelling national pessimism promoted by opinion formers. The back-to- basics roller-coaster had taken off in yet another new direction, provoking claims that the right was again hijacking the policy.

Within hours, Cabinet divisions were front-page news with a report originating from another dinner, which had taken place last Thursday in Downing Street.

The Daily Mail and the Sun claimed that, in conversation before the meal, Mr Major had promised to 'f***ing crucify the right for what they have done' and said that he would not to call an election until 1996.

The dinner was attended by journalists, politicians, and the wife, parents, former colleagues and friends of Gus O'Donnell, Mr Major's departing press secretary, in whose honour it was convened. The journalists among the guests included the editors of the Daily Express and Evening Standard, and political editors and others from the Independent, Times, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, the BBC, ITN and the Press Association.

This black-tie dinner was a good-natured affair. Mr Major made a witty speech in the style of his Private Eye caricature, the Secret Diary of John Major aged 47 and three-quarters, and joked about finding himself seated next to two Mrs O'Donnells and being relieved to discover that this was not a new scandal, simply that one was his departing press secretary's wife, the other his mother. Ironically he also said, tongue-in-cheek, that he could speak candidly 'because I know what I say won't be reported'.

The resulting stories provoked a new crisis in relations between Mr Major and the Tory tabloids with both sides, effectively, accusing each other of lying. The reports, written by journalists not at the dinner, were denounced as malicious invention. But both papers said yesterday that they stood by their stories indicating that Mr Major's recent truce with the Conservative press is over.

The truth is difficult to establish because a number of conversations were taking place simultaneously while drinks were dispensed before the meal. None of the guests could have heard everything. Mr Major did discuss politics and made a reference to the fact that he did not need to call an election until 1996; but none of those contacted who were present have confirmed the Sun's story. One theory is that a journalist who was at the dinner later invented the comments as a joke for colleagues.

This ended a miserable week for Mr Major which has left back-to-basics in tatters. Scandals and resignations have reduced the initiative to ridicule: it's not so much back-to- basics, went the joke at the Commons, as back to my place. But many at Westminster believe that failure is the inevitable result of a political initiative poorly thought-through and obscure in origin.

One of the many curiosities about the campaign is that the opening shot was fired, not from the right of the Conservative Party, but from the left. It was John Patten, now Secretary of State for Education, who first moved the party on to moral territory in April 1992 with an article in the Spectator which began: 'I believe in God. I worry about Him. I think that He probably worries about me'. He argued that it was self-evident to him 'that we are born with a sense of good and evil'.

The Tories' moralising tendency is nothing new and strands of it are threaded through the party. Some are on the right of the Parliamentary party, the 'pro-lifers who are in favour of hanging', as one Tory MP dismissively described them last week. Others are on the left, like John Gummer, who for years has been arguing for a return to 'family values'.

But the Tory moralising tendency was not a powerful body. It was the free-market right of the party that gave momentum to the campaign by singling out single mothers and highlighting moral choices last summer and autumn. Last June, John Redwood, the newly-appointed Secretary of State for Wales, branched out into the arena by identifying the single parent as a component of social disintegration. Mr Redwood is described by friends as a secular, rather than a Catholic, moralist and his message was subtly different from Mr Patten's.

It was not aimed at tapping into traditional rural Tory sentiments but addressing Thatcherite Tories - according to one ally - about 'looking at the framework for the family in a context where both parents work and expect a high level of prosperity, about taking responsiblity for the family, thinking for tomorrow - for example about pensions'.

By the party conference the theme was well and truly running. With Mr Major's leadership under attack and a lack of any clear ideological themes, ministers vied to fill the vacuum. This included Thatcherites usually wary of straying into the arena of morality, like Peter Lilley, the right-wing Secretary of State for Social Security, who stressed in a fringe meeting the need 'to reaffirm that the family is the fundamental building block of our society'.

Nor could leadership contenders from the right afford to be left out. Mr Portillo told a right-wing group that 'Conservatives do make value judgements. For us there is a difference between right and wrong.'

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, went further at a fringe meeting, emphasising 'our belief that the traditional two-parent family is best'.

By the time Mr Major spoke at the end of the conference, coining the phrase 'back to basics', there seemed to be a competitive market in moral rhetoric. His speech latched on to a theme which united several different strands of Conservative thinking. Moralists, authoritarian and paternalistic Tories, and now the economic liberals, all saw something to gain in back-to-basics. 'Clearly,' said one Tory last week 'post-Thatcher there was a need for some kind of unifying idea, and this was an attempt to fill it.'

The difficulty was that the theme had not been thought through. As one insider put it last week: 'Usually a policy is devised and thrashed out before it is promoted in a set- piece speech. Here it was the other way around.'

Only after Mr Major's unexpectedly good reception at Blackpool did the head of his policy unit, Sarah Hogg, circulate a minute to Cabinet ministers which declared war on the permissive society under the back-to-basics heading, promoting it to the status of a policy, rather than a prime ministerial slogan.

Although ministers argued that back-to-basics was 'striking a chord with the public', the espousal of such a policy is a sign of ideological weakness, rather than strength. The concept was conceived in a moment of political weakness in order to paper over divisions that had riven the party throughout the Maastricht debate.

Moreover, it lacks clarity. As one Conservative source put it last week: 'It was interpreted in different ways by different parts of the party.'

The lesson from last week's tale of two dinners is that Mr Major has still failed to re-establish his leadership, his objectives and his sense of political direction. As Conservatives approach a debacle in this year's local and European elections, their minds will focus back on that most basic of all political instincts: survival.

Once again Mr Major's leadership is on the line.

(Photograph omitted)

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