Why two years is a long time in politics: Early in 1993, after a series of post-election disasters, many Conservative MPs believed things could only get better for John Major. But they did not. Colin Brown reports

JOHN MAJOR is planning to spend today quietly in his Huntingdon constituency, possibly reflecting on the cruel twists of politics.

On 9 April 1992, he led the Conservatives to victory with 14.1 million votes, the highest vote ever recorded for one party in a British general election.

This weekend, the opinion polls show his standing and that of his Government have fallen faster than any since polling began in the 1930s.

Mr Major is lower in the ratings, two years after being elected, than all his post-war predecessors. A MORI poll yesterday showed there would be a 4 per cent swing from Labour to the Conservatives if Mr Major was replaced as leader by Michael Heseltine.

The survey of 1,111 voters, confirmed earlier findings in an NOP- Independent on Sunday poll. MORI found that 32 per cent believed Mr Heseltine would make the best Tory leader, compared to 19 per cent for Mr Major, 11 per cent for Kenneth Clarke, 5 per cent for Virginia Bottomley and 4 per cent for Michael Portillo.

When asked how they would vote if Mr Heseltine led the Tories, support for the Tories rose from 28 per cent to 33 per cent, and support for Labour fell from 46 per cent to 43 per cent. The results show that Labour's lead, though commanding, is capable of being reduced under a new leader.

It will be of little comfort that when Tory voters were asked the leadership question, Mr Major was given 37 per cent, compared to 33 per cent for Mr Heseltine.

Two years ago, the Conservatives led Labour on the key issues, but that has been reversed under Mr Major. The Tories are seen as Labour was in the 1980s - divided and untrustworthy.

Mr Major's first year after the election was said to have been the worst ever suffered by a party or a prime minister.

The pillars of the Establishment appeared to be crumbling: the Prince and Princess of Wales separated, the Queen agreed to pay tax, and the Government was shaken by a storm of protest over pit closures, then hit by a sex scandal involving David Mellor, Secretary of State for National Heritage. Even the 1993 Grand National was lost in low farce.

Privately, ministers said that after a year like that, things could only get better. They were wrong.

They had hoped that economic recovery would come from Britain's withdrawal from the Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday in September 1992, although this had destroyed a key election commitment. Norman Lamont, the then Chancellor, 'sang in the bath' after Britain's ERM exit, but the move failed to produce the green shoots of recovery he had promised.

He delivered his two-stage Budget in March 1993, but was sacked in May. The bitterness for his former friend was exposed when in June, in his resignation speech, Mr Lamont accused Mr Major of appearing 'in office but not in power'. The charge of short- termism was deeply hurtful for Mr Major, who hotly denied it.

Throughout the year, he had pressed ahead with the Bill to ratify the Maastricht treaty, in the face of growing criticism from his own back bench and the doubts of the anti-Europeans within the Cabinet. At private parties, he berated friends with his angry denials of short-termism.

Mr Major had hoped the personal attacks on his leadership would subside with the reshuffle in May. But they continued with a vengeance after Mr Lamont's sacking. Within a month, another minister - Michael Mates - had been forced to resign, over the Asil Nadir affair.

Mr Major was damned if he stood by his ministers and damned if he did not. Mr Mates had given a watch to Nadir, inscribed 'Don't let the bastards get you down'. It would have been an ideal present for Mr Major.

His greatest crisis came after the Government defeat on the Maastricht Bill. He put his leadership on the line, put down a confidence motion that forced the rebels to back him, and won the day. That assertion of authority was short- lived.

As MPs prepared for the summer holidays in July, the Prime Minister gave vent to his frustration, privately denouncing the 'bastards' in the Cabinet. 'Why does such a complete wimp like me keep winning?' he asked. It was intended to be rhetorical, but some of his backbenchers wondered the same thing.

Mr Major sought to shake off his domestic worries with a tour to the Far East in September, but they continued the follow him, and, as the Independent reported, he privately dismissed as 'barmy' some of the Tory MPs who were trying to bring him down over Maastricht.

The 'back to basics' crusade, which Mr Major launched at the party conference, backfired in January when Tim Yeo, followed by a string of other ministers and Tory MPs, were involved in sex scandals, culminating in the tragic death of Stephen Milligan, MP for Eastleigh, in a bizarre case of auto- eroticism. The by-election for his formerly safe Tory seat is now expected to become another defeat for Mr Major.

Not even successful meetings with President Bill Clinton in Washington and President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow could lift Mr Major's standing - he was even ridiculed for wearing a 'funny' Russian hat.

Europe continued like a festering sore on his leadership, breaking out again before Easter when he was forced to retreat from the hard-line rhetoric he had used on John Smith, the Labour leader, over qualified majority voting.

It was not an issue which excited much interest in the pubs of Britain, but it confirmed the overwhelming impression of a Prime Minister on the run.

The record shows Mr Major has been constant over controversial policies: Maastricht and Europe; the collieries - those earmarked for closure are nearly all closed; and the privatisation of British Rail, which is going ahead.

Tory leaders yesterday sought to put the best gloss on the second anniversary of Mr Major's general election triumph by holding out the prospect of economic recovery to show that the pain of the past two years has been worthwhile.

Conservative Central Office issued its own version of the past two years, a 25-page document called Building the Best Future for Britain, to counter the attacks on Mr Major's term by the Liberal Democrats and Labour.

'Since the general election, economic recovery has been the number one priority of this Government . . . It has been a tough time for many, but the evidence of recovery is clear and the groundwork has been laid for long-term sustained growth, with all the benefits that will bring,' Sir Norman Fowler, Chairman of the Conservative Party, said.

Among the achievements he listed was the reduction in interest rates from 15 per cent in 1990 to 5.25 per cent in March. That may offset the tax increases this month for homeowners, but after 14 years in office, the Conservatives are fighting their own record.

While the battle goes on over the alleged broken promises, Mr Major and the Tory party are banking on economic recovery to wipe out the memory of the past two years by the time of the next election. That could be three years away.

Meanwhile, Mr Major may join Mr Mellor today to watch his team, Chelsea, in the FA Cup semi-final. At least they would have someone to blame if Chelsea are defeated.

(Photographs omitted)

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