All lines of communication seem to have broken down

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The Independent Online
I have two television images stuck in my mind. I saw them at Christmas time and now, whenever my mind goes vacant, they float into view, like bath toys coming round from behind your back for the seventh time.

The first image is of John Major trying to explain the disastrous result of the Dudley West by-election. He is smiling in that affable way which politicians have when things are really bad (only when things are going really well can politicians afford tofrown and look statesmanlike ), and he is saying: "Well, all this shows is that our message isn't getting through. Our production is booming, exports are up, inflation is down, we are recovering better than anyone in Europe, and we must keep hammering away at getting this across until people realise how well we are doing."

I can't swear that these are the exact words said by John Major, or even that it was John Major who said them. It may have been Jeremy Hanley, or Malcolm Rifkind, or Stephen Dorrell, or any of the puppet figures with strings pulled by Central Office who appear on television and say, "If only the British public would listen to our message Anyway, this is just the usual mid-term blues that you always experience between general elections." Whenever you hear the expression "mid-term blues" you can be sure that you are watching a man with his strings in the hands of Central Office.

The other image I have retained from the Christmas period is of a Newsnight interview with Bob Worcester, head of Mori polls. The presenter had asked him to reflect on the very same Dudley West by-election.

"Well," said Bob, "this is the biggest defeat the Tories have had for 60 years. Add to that the string of other by-election disasters, the very bad results in the European elections, the loss by the Tories of all but two shire town halls, and the consistently appalling performance by the Prime Minister and the Government in the opinion polls, and the picture begins to emerge of an electorate trying to tell the Government something, and of a government which is not listening to what the electorate is trying to tell it."

I wonder if you can detect a kind of symmetry at work here. On the one hand we have a government that is emitting a message it believes in utterly. Unfortunately, it does not seem be getting through at the other end. The answer, according to the Government, is to repeat the message over and over again until it does get through.

On the other hand, you have an electorate that is also emitting a message which it is convinced is right. Sadly, that message is apparently not being received. The answer, according to the electorate, is to repeat the message at election after election, in poll after poll, until it does get through.

Well, I may be naively jumping to conclusions, but I think I detect the makings of an impasse here. No, even worse - I think we have the makings of a television sitcom here. The whole position is like a situation comedy called Getting Through, in which two people sharing a flat are each secretly convinced that the other is stone deaf and shouts the whole time, without ever really being heard. Or maybe it is like one of those Samuel Beckett plays in which two characters spend a lot of time on stage talki ng separately, rather than together.

Just before Christmas, Radio 4's Today programme organised one of those personality of the year contests that seem to be open mostly to people who have no particular personality, and the first three were , in order, Roy Castle, John Major and Nelson Mandela. This is an extraordinary result. At a time when John Major is doing worse in popularity polls than any known prime minister, it seems odd that Today listeners should judge him the most popular person alive.

There are, I think, only three possible explanations. The first is that the whole thing had been rigged and that Central Office had organised a huge call-in vote. A second is the theory that the only people who listen to Today are cabinet ministers hoping that other cabinet ministers in the radio car will make asses of themselves, and that enough of these voted for John Major to put him into second place.

But the third theory seems the most plausible to me. This is that the Today listeners voted for John Major for much the same reasons and in much the same spirit that they voted for Roy Castle. They felt John Major was very brave as he neared the end, that he showed great good-humoured spirits in the face of the inevitable and that although not a specially talented or charismatic entertainer, his departure might be the most impressive and instructive thing he had done.