A steep and slippery hill to climb

John Major must consolidate his victory by rapidly transforming his party's standing in the country
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A clear win; and a wounded party. This result puts John Major out of danger of a cabinet putsch or further revolt of MPs, and politics will feel different as a result. He has won the right to fight through to the next election without constantly looking over his shoulder at homicidal "colleagues". And his party has one last chance to show that it can pull itself together.

Let's be clear: this ought to mean a healthier political atmosphere at Westminster and indeed through the whole country. We have had far too much of poisoned gossip and intrigue, and far too little argument about health, education, political reform, housing, unemployment, and the rest of the ordinary agenda. Now, unless the Conservative Party is entirely mad, the fever must abate and a cooler, more rational season must begin.

Within seconds of the result, cabinet ministers and loyalist MPs were fanning out through Westminster and charging towards television cameras to proclaim a pre-arranged line - that it was a famous victory, that Major had done better than any previous party leader, and that no one could quibble with the result.

Up to a point. It has long been true that many things in politics are what they are instantly declared to be on television; and the slick, quick operation to talk up a so-so result may have done more to keep Major safely in office than the actual numbers themselves. But some of us earn a good living by quibbling. Coming from a long line of quibbling stock, we must be allowed to pursue our traditional craft and quibble away.

It isn't difficult. Here, after all, was a sitting prime minister who declared that only a derisory "small minority" of his MPs were sniping at him, yet who found that a third of the parliamentary party wanted him out. Whatever else it is, that isn't a triumph. These are figures that will feed the self-importance of right-wing critics for some time.

Words have been spoken that will be long remembered, and relationships have been broken. John Redwood's "no change means no chance" will be quoted time and time again. The government whips' office was divided in its loyalties, with some pledging their private support for Redwood. Vivid criticism of the whips has come from key pro-Major ministers.

The big guns of the Tory press, forced to sit down and say yes or no to John Major, turned savagely against him. This wasn't much of a surprise. Major always despised the Thatcherite editors and leader-writing snobs, and didn't lose his chance to cock a quick snook on the steps of Downing Street at "those commentators outside Westminster" who had attacked him.

But among Tories, the senior editors and proprietors of papers such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph have never really been considered outsiders; they are part of the wider Conservative family, people on whom the political leadership traditionally relies. Can they ever sound enthusiastic about Major again after what they have been saying over the past few days? Will their readers take them seriously if they try? This is a problem for them; but it is a problem for Major, too.

If a few years ago, one had suggested that a Conservative prime minister could not only survive but prosper having lost the full support of the whips' office and the confidence of almost all the key Tory newspapers and the backing of a third of all Tory MPs, then one would have been regarded as a hopeless loony.

But that is the proposition facing us this morning. Nor have the wider surrounding political facts been transformed as a result of this election. A recovery that combines higher taxes, lower house prices and serious unemployment, including among the middle classes, will not make voters any happier now than it was making them feel a month ago. The dilemmas of the European intergovernmental conference are no simpler than they were. Tony Blair is no less impressive than he was.

This is, to put it gently, a formidable and slippery hill for the Major government to climb back up in a relatively short space of time. To aid its recovery, there is, of course, the end of the destructive leadership speculation. With that aside, will the country be confronted by a range of policies and ministerial talent that makes it draw its collective breath with admiration?

As psychologically important is the Prime Minister himself. He needs to seem a different kind of leader - more eloquent, more assertive, more the master of his party. As the smoke clears and today's cabinet reshuffle is accomplished, digested, analysed and then forgotten, Major has to find things in himself that he hasn't discovered over the past five years. This is a difficult thing to ask of anyone: people rarely change much in middle age.

But the early signs are at least that Major has lost none of his relish for power; the choreographed cabinet support and the instant announcement of a restructuring of government conveyed an impression of energy and decisive forward movement.

Other players and bystanders will come away with different emotions. This has been, in general, an inglorious fortnight for the Fourth Estate - too many duff forecasts, too much bile, too much bloodlust. Many a red- eyed hack and lesser pundit will be sprinkling a few ill-chosen sentences on the cornflakes to be munched this morning.

The Tory right is also weaker than it was. It was obliged to strike earlier than it had planned to. As a result, its manifesto sounded implausible and threadbare, its leading figures were divided and its attempt to grab power was thwarted. Michael Portillo has not emerged as a more impressive politician after a miserable fortnight, and has some serious thinking to do about his political future.

The neo-Thatcherites will, of course, be back, but perhaps the Tory left will be prepared for them rather better next time. After all, in sharp distinction to 1990, it was the centre-left who saved Major, and he must know it. "We're the keepers of the Ark of the Covenant," said one such loyalist, in those tense hours before the result. "We're not going to let those bastards take our party away from us," said another normally mild-mannered leftish minister.

Labour MPs, meanwhile, were jubilant about a result they had hoped for. Michael Heseltine would have frightened most of them more. But I think they should not be too gleeful. Among those parliamentarians who still think the Prime Minister is badly underrated as a practitioner of the trade is one Tony Blair; he may prove shrewder than some of his supporters.

Certainly the next few months will show whether the Tories have lost their old ability to close ranks after the bloodiest of internecine battles, and march back again. It is still possible that they can; "bloody Tory hypocrisy'', the Opposition will shout whenever a former rebel gets up to praise this government. But the electorate's collective memory is notoriously short; and the Tories with their backs to the wall are still an awesome sight.

In the end, though, it is all up to John Major. For a fortnight he has made the political weather, as leaders are supposed to do, and he has not been hounded out of office by his MPs, which is good news for the British constitution. Now he must transform his standing in the country. If he doesn't, there is no one left to blame; his excuses, as well as his parliamentary enemies, were voted down last night.