A grisly mime of party unity

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The Independent Online
SHE IS now what she swore, on leaving office, she would never be. Margaret Thatcher has become a malign influence on Conservative politics. Her populist influence on the Tory benches is undermining John Major's diminished authority as Prime Minister. He ought to tell her that. He ought to tell the party that. Instead, when she arrives here, the whole Tory hierarchy will fawn on her. The grisly mime of unity will delight a few deluded romantics. And the work of destruction will continue.

For the real arena isn't Blackpool, it is the House of Commons. Baroness Thatcher may have decided not to make Mr Major's conference week any worse, but her followers in Parliament are determined not to make his next year any easier.

The hardline Thatcherites are pursuing a form of politics that does not deserve to be taken seriously by the Conservative Party. They have let it be known - and so has she - that they believe Mr Major to be a hopeless dud. But they have also decided that it is in their interests that Kenneth Clarke, the most obvious successor, should not succeed. There must be time for Michael Portillo, of the true faith, to claim the prize.

That being so, the anti-Major faction has, for the time being, lost its nerve. Do they think the Prime Minister is useless? Yes. Do they want him to go? They don't know. Sometime, maybe. Not yet.

Daily we witness the result of this sliminess, and it is an unpleasant one. A group of Westminster politicians, larger than the Tory majority, is ensuring that the national leader remains weak. They dare not kill, but will not strive, officiously or otherwise, to keep alive. They hem him in. They lay down the law about European policy and the Budget. They keep quiet about clearly Thatcherite but unpopular causes. Are the right-wing dissidents doing their bit by stamping the country campaigning for rail privatisation? Are they hell. (But just watch them turn on Mr Major when he has safely authorised a U-turn.)

No, they go for the emotive, popular issues - Bosnia in the past, VAT on domestic fuel now. They feed the anti- Major campaign with vicious quotes in private and with weasel words in public. They are sliding towards a peculiarly unpatriotic kind of politics: the promotion of weak, unpopular government for purely factional purposes.

It would be different if the Thatcherites could command a Commons majority. Then they could reach beyond factionalism to serious national politics. But they cannot. So they demand deep reductions in public spending, knowing full well that these cannot be delivered in the Commons, and without offering up departmental cuts of their own. Some of the right-wing rebels are themselves no more than posturing populists when it comes to preserving specific spending programmes.

More generally, the Thatcherites must understand that any government's ability to deliver difficult decisions depends on its morale, unity and sense of purpose: a united and popular party can do things that a disunited and disliked one simply cannot get away with. Undermining your leader and then blaming him for his lack of clout is shabby stuff. The Tory dissidents are coming close to gifting the country a party that will not back spending cuts and will not vote for higher taxes, either. And all this delivered via a system and party that promise strong government.

To govern is to choose, and the Chancellor, Mr Clarke, has been trying to ram home that there are difficult choices. For all the arrogance of his sweeping dismissals at the weekend about the broken VAT promises, the Chancellor is, perforce, playing serious politics. There are no popular or populist options between now and November, and Tory dissidents who pretend there are - including former prime ministers - are doing the country no service.

All of which brings us back to the Conservatives at Blackpool. There has clearly been some kind of deal, some truce between Lady Thatcher and Mr Major, at least for the duration of conference week. Remorse? Or do we discern the hand of their last mutual confidant, Lord Archer? At any rate, we in the hack-pool are all enthusiasts for party loyalty and reticence. Nothing gives us more pain than an unsightly row between politicians. Oh, no.

But, in all seriousness, Mr Major would be ill-advised to take a detour round this confrontation. If the names of various bastards and devils are not in his conference text, they ought to be. Plain speaking will do more for Mr Major's reputation than all Sir Ronald Millar's clever jokes. And there is a job to be done in this speech. It is plainly the case that the Thatcherites are deploying mere rhetorical manoeuvring, oppositional politics from politicians still in government. If Mr Major wants to survive, the Tory party must be made to see through the principled rhetoric to the dishonest politics that lies behind it. This time, an act of leadership matters more than the implausible display of unity.

I do not have high hopes. Every second article on Mr Major (including mine) seems to finish with 'now he must show his will to fight . . .' or 'now he must take on the rebels publicly . . .' or 'now he must press home his advantage'. And he just doesn't want to do it. It's too horrible. It's too risky. In private, his frustration has erupted ever more clearly. But, thus far, it has reached the public domain only by accident. Thus far, the party manager, it seems, dominates the national leader, the tactician overrules the strategist.

Such half-heartedness would guarantee that Blackpool was not a career-ending personal disaster for Mr Major. But it would make it unlikely that the conference could be a triumph for him, either. We would endure a few days of the usual low-grade stuff: the usual easy targets - Labour's irresponsibility on defence and the unions; the two-faced Lib-Dems; and the usual deal whereby the Home Secretary of the day pretends to be cracking down on crime and the conference pretends to believe him. Mr Major would get enough of a boost to limp grimly on. And the Thatcherites would limp grimly after him.

It's a dreary prospect. Tory conferences have become a degraded form of showbiz, summed up by the 'unity kiss' between the current and former leaders, the kiss which has doubtless already been choreographed - yes, down to Mr Major's 'spontaneous' hug. Surely things have slipped too far for this to be enough, even for the Conservative Party? Please, Prime Minister, let's see some politics in conference week.

(Photograph omitted)