From glory in Venice to death in Halifax

G7 summit/ British decline
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The Independent Online
PERHAPS John Major imagined that the meeting of the Group of Seven industrialised countries and President Boris Yeltsin of Russia, gathering in the mild and pleasant port of Halifax, in Nova Scotia, would provide a tranquillising mixture of dignity and balm. Alas for Mr Major and his retinue, this turned out to qualify, very possibly, as the Summit from Hell.

Halifax is the kind of town where the discovery of a stray .38- calibre bullet from a Mountie's gun on the floor of the Thirsty Duck Pub is a serious news item. The summit was modest, the hosts charming. Even the security men were polite. But as in the best horror movies, the transformation from tranquil to gruesome can be quick and bloody.

Mr Major and Douglas Hurd set off aboard a British Airways jet chartered by Downing Street. Unfortunately, for mystifying technical reasons, the plane appeared bereft of all those pieces of electronic wizardry by which prime ministers are supposed to remain in omniscient touch with the doings of their realm. As a result, the party bumped its way across the Atlantic unaware, we were led to believe, of the storms gathering around the beleaguered citadels of Westminster and Sarajevo.

When the modest Boeing 767 touched down there seemed something vaguely intimidatory about the two blunt-snouted Japanese jumbo jets, emblazoned with the rising sun, already parked on the tarmac. Not to mention Bill Clinton's obligatory two jumbos not far away. Nearby stood Helmut Kohl's European Airbus, its ample fuselage discreetly labelled "Luftwaffe".

Chancellor Kohl - a man suddenly so conscious of ecology that he had shared a bus into town rather than ride in a limousine - was preoccupied by the disposal of the Brent Spar, a disused oil platform in the North Sea. Mr Kohl, it was intimated, wanted words on the matter.

Downing Street was equal to that one. We would stand firm. No German chancellor could compel a decent British firm to desist from sinking the Brent Spar wherever it thought fit. By and by, Mr Kohl lumbered apologetically over to the Prime Minister, uttered his spiel about the Brent Spar, was duly Stood Up To, and went away to lunch.

But the future submersion of the Brent Spar was as nothing to the sinking fortunes of the Conservative Party, relayed across the oceans in breathless detail. It was Mr Major's bad luck that this was the week in which the parliamentary lobby seems to have decided he was dead in the water. Sharks, as we know, will circle.

When, for example, it was announced that Mr Major was pleased by his last conversation with "the President", at least half the press corps momentarily confused the names of Heseltine and Clinton. And when he came before the cameras hoping to answer questions about Britain's contribution to the debate on reform of global institutions, the names Portillo and Thatcher resounded unhappily in his ears.

A stray microphone caught Mr Major conversing with Mr Kohl on coalition politics. "I am a coalition government on my own," he said sadly.

Douglas Hurd decided on what might be called the Grand Strategy. He simply refused to discuss domestic politics. One gained the impression that Mr Hurd considered it all too vulgar for words.

After a day or so, even the splendid local newspaper in Halifax, the Chronicle-Herald, felt it had to inform its readers of the political upheavals back in the Old Country. Canada, it will be remembered in Downing Street and Central Office, is the nation that evicted its own Conservatives from office with such vigour in its last election that the party barely exists any more.

But the Chronicle-Herald found two British tourists and at least two other ladies who were delighted to see Mr Major walking like a normal human being along Lower Water Street.

This was perhaps the last charitable piece of journalism which Downing Street could rely upon for the rest of the week. Bosnia took over the whole agenda for the first working sessions. President Jacques Chirac contributed to the chaos by a misunderstanding with Washington. But we had to Stick By Mr Chirac, malentendus and nuclear tests notwithstanding, just as we had to Stand Up To Mr Kohl. Then, for good measure, finance ministers dismissed Kenneth Clarke's plan to relieve Third World debt by selling off stocks of gold held by the IMF

For a while, one could retain the illusion that this was like a summit in the days of High Thatcherism - 1987 in Venice, for example, when Margaret Thatcher flew in for one day to bestow her wisdom upon the gathering and flew back to win another general election the day after. Urbane civil servants can still recite, mantra-like, the list of subjects on which the whole world is coming to agree with the British Model: our enlightened employment policies, our liberating approach to labour contracts, our firm but sage dispensation of social benefits, our wise refusal to contemplate a minimum wage. Listening to all this, it seems a source of wonder that the inhabitants of Kyoto or Lyons are not flocking to enjoy the amenities of life on Merseyside. But this is not 1987, and summits, it seems, no longer go according to the script.