A vulgar politician among the innocents

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THERE has been time to digest the drama of last week. Like most organisations, the Government quickly slots back into routine. Right-wing grandees offer John Major predictable, untrustworthy messages of support. Everything is put off. All that said, the firm private judgement of more and more Tory MPs, back from talking things over with their local party officers, is bleak for Mr Major.

What has he lacked? Above all, sufficient skill at raw politics. He proved a poor butcher, and shies from black propaganda. Most of those now at the top of the Conservative Party are similarly innocent. They got their key promotions during the Indian summer of Thatcherism, when it seemed that Tories could win elections semi- automatically.

So in Mr Major's smoother cabinet, comprising the civilised chaps who took over from the Tebbits, Ridleys and Lawsons, backroom skills, organisational ability and an appetite for red boxes became the most esteemed qualities. The cruder political arts were looked down on as grubby, slightly ridiculous, old-fashioned. Above all, today's leaders have not taken good speaking seriously. This does not mean fine speaking, far from it, but vivid speaking - the use of words that busy, distracted, apolitical voters can instantly recall and which then help to shape the way they think about the world. It was Nye Bevan who said: 'The first function of a political leader is advocacy.'

When Mr Major became prime minister his inability to make a good speech seemed a rather trivial, second-order matter. Now, after four successive comeback speeches over the past few weeks, each of which he desperately needed to make a success of, and each of which has fallen with all the impact of snow on a hotplate, he is learning better.

Rhetoric matters in the broadest, non-technical sense. Kenneth Clarke, in his first speech to the Commons as Chancellor last week, gave a performance that thrilled his demoralised party. It contained barely a speck of original (or any) economic analysis. It was full of cheap shots, sweeping generalisations, irrelevant asides. He will not get away with a similar performance at Guildhall tonight.

But, by God, it worked. Take his response to Labour's Gordon Brown, who had reminded the House of a somewhat silly speech Mr Clarke had made during the heyday of the Thatcher-Lawson boom. In general, he retorted, Labour economics had 'about as much policy content as the average telephone directory' and its attacks on the Government were based on 'the usual research . . . half-sentences taken from shredded speeches that somebody delivered on a wet night somewhere in Dudley, and then quoted out of context . . .' As for that particular speech, he 'dimly' recalled visiting a Welsh conference in 1987 and didn't regret a word.

There was not the faintest stab at self-justification by the new Chancellor. And the Tory party loved him for - what? His brazen self-confidence, above all. His was a speech Mr Major could not have made. The Prime Minister is nothing like vulgar enough, or reckless enough, to hang a major Commons performance on the kind of crude, rabble-rousing stuff that is Mr Clarke's stock-in-trade. He is, in the best sense, too fastidious a man for that. He is too cautious ever to cheerily describe the Government's predicament as 'a dreadful hole'.

All political talents are double- edged, and Mr Clarke's big gob (for once, the mot seems juste) will land him in trouble sooner or later. He will describe the chairman of Megabank as a 'shady oik' or wipe billions off the stock market by confessing to being 'absolutely brown-trousered' about the trade deficit. But, just at the moment, his lust to be understood is precious because so rare.

He is, in other ways, the reverse of Mr Major as a political leader. He gives the (perhaps cultivated) impression of caring not at all what people think about him. Senior party figures who have been invited to lecture him about his overhanging stomach and dishevelled suits have been rewarded with blank indifference. His tramps through our great departments of state have made him lifetime enemies in most professions. He has a casual ruthlessness about achieving his objectives.

In public, most right-wing politicians and commentators stress that personalities are not relevant to the Tory crisis and that it is all about policies. But then the anti-Majorites tend to go on to list policies - privatisation, the perpetual suppression of inflationary tendencies, public spending cuts, tough law-and-order legislation - with which Mr Major agrees. And which, indeed, he is energetically pursuing. Apart from Maastricht, he has been doing what, on paper, his Tory critics want him to.

But they have a more vulgar, more basic gripe. In private, the anti-Major Tories think he is not strong enough to lead. Even lady Thatcher, now apparently alarmed at the decomposition in her party, privately says harsh things about his ability to lead. Asking him to be someone else is, however, an absurdity. Straightforward, commonsensical MPs are now saying the situation is irrecoverable for him, whether he stays or not.

Yes, there is something nasty and, at bottom, deeply illogical about what is happening. A good man looks like being ousted, sooner or later, to make way for a less decent, more ruthless leader. Our democracy is perhaps less mature, less level-headed, than we like to suppose. But to dislike a thing is not to make it disappear. And across the country, in local Tory parties and in knots of Tory MPs, this thing is happening.