The Recall of Parliament: Grey man refuses to change colour in crisis: Commons Sketch

Click to follow
Indy Politics
CALL John Major what you may - 'resign' was the advice chorusing from Labour lips yesterday - he is nothing if not consistent: grey in triumph, grey in disaster.

He treated the collapse of his European policy with the same back-to-work pragmatism as he had his Houdini-like election victory. Worrying away at his policy goals - 'same objectives . . . bring inflation down steadily but surely . . .' - he resembled a man tending his lawn after a hurricane has just blown down his house.

Clearly in a spot of bother, it was as if he'd called on the strong arm of the law to get him out of it. His speech was the rhetorical equivalent of the double-act between the nice and nasty coppers. The genial chap at the beginning warmly welcomed his new opponent, John Smith, and archly congratulated him on his consistency in cleaving to the same ERM policy as the Government. Bouquets were handed out to industry for their 'magnificent response in the fight against inflation.'

Just as you felt that all was going to be sweetness, light, and maybe even apologies, this magnanimous gent was replaced by a brutal thug with a particularly hostile attitude to foreigners.

Swiping at the Germans, he referred to 'injudicious comments about realignment that should never have been made'.

Pressed on whether he would permit a referendum, he scorned parliaments in 'other places', where they would wrap up the whole treaty without considering it 'by line and by clause'.

The long summer break seems to have done more for the Prime Minister's delivery - a monotony-reducing alternation of passionate forte and reasoning piano - than his prose style.

His language is text-book, but it appears to be an obscure technology text-book. When he reached for a colourful image, you often wished he had not: 'Nobody should believe that a floating exchange rate is a free meal,' he warned. 'Did Mellor write this?' bawled Dennis Skinner; it was one calumny that probably couldn't be pinned on the Secretary of State for National Heritage.

By contrast, John Smith might have devised his speech as a showcase for his literary skills. He regaled us first with a mystery story: The Strange Case of the Government's Disappearing Economic Policy. Then there was a thriller: the scuppering of the Government by speculators (as John Major would have it). Next a bit of farce: a long, excruciating account of the Prime Minister's hubristic plan for the pound to supersede the deutschmark, likened to Eddie the Eagle's assault on Olympic gold.

He even threw in a piece of C S Forrester-style naval adventure: John Major on the bridge engulfed by an 'unforeseen' tempest.

It was a performance not so much masterly, as school-masterly. He scolded the Chancellor as a little boy who had told fibs, and could never be believed 'in anything he subsequently says'. He stopped, shocked, to tick off the Prime Minister for giggling.

When a Tory backbencher complained that Mr Smith had been talking down the pound in the crucial days before the sterling crisis, he retorted that after all the Government's finger- pointing: 'I was waiting for someone to blame me for the devaluation.'

Not content with having romped home in his own leadership contest, he mischievously hinted at a Tory one, pointing to Michael Heseltine, 'sitting a suitable distance away from the Prime Minister'.

If he leant a little too heavily on devaluation jokes ('no more devalued political currency than a Conservative election promise . . . He is the devalued head of a devalued government'), few could deny a debutant so handy a metaphor.

'Bring back Kinnock,' a Tory backbencher mocked. They should be so lucky.