Can John Major's government succeed?: Jim Prior says the welcome signs of revival need encouragement in the next six months

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The Independent Online
Over the past two months the Government has been going through a terrible patch. Nothing appears to have gone right and nearly everything wrong. The rot set in with devaluation, and continued with the debacle over the handling of the pit closures and the Maastricht debate. The very survival of the Government has been called into question; newspapers, normally strong supporters of the Tories, have turned nasty, and the more vociferous among the Thatcherite converts of the late Seventies have begun to vent their spleen on the hapless Prime Minister.

These are unnerving times for senior ministers, however battle- hardened and thick-skinned they may become. No one likes being criticised and lampooned by the media, especially when the wounds are largely self-inflicted. It saps the confidence, weakens authority and is quickly sensed by civil servants and backbench members alike. And it fosters the impression that the Government is less competent than it may actually be.

It is nothing new for prime ministers and governments to run into a whole series of misfortunes. On the Tory side, Harold Macmillan in 1963 and Edward Heath 10 years later can attest to troubles never coming singly. For Labour, Jim Callaghan came back from a Caribbean conference in the cold winter of 1979 to utter those infamous words, 'Crisis, what crisis?' I just hope that no cabinet minister will be photographed sunbathing in the tropics this year as snow begins to fall here.

But John Major's problems are of a different order. They come at the start of a new parliament with a new mandate, and they follow an unexpected election victory for which he was largely responsible. His task now, as then, is to show that he leads a reinvigorated government, not one worn down by the trials and tribulations of 14 years in office. So far the general view is that he has not done so.

Part of the problem is certainly the age of the Government. As time goes on, ministers get out of touch because their civil servants and the needs of security protect them from the demands of everyday life. Many years in office can make ministers feel so familiar with the problems that they start to neglect the political essentials. They become too like the civil servants whose careers over the same long period have marched with their own. People who were junior ministers at the start of the Thatcher years are now in charge. Private secretaries are now permanent secretaries, and a rather cloistered familiarity has bred its own form of contempt.

Then there are the now burgeoning number of political advisers, often ostracised by civil servants and with only limited experience of the world outside the politics of Oxbridge political debate and the Conservative Research Department. Ministers need to spend less time closeted with departmental officials and more time on the telephone listening to people with contributions to make. My advice would be that every senior minister should have a group of independent advisers meeting regularly in private, and drawn from those with long- term knowledge of ministerial responsibility.

Mastering a brief is important, and politicians are good at it, but it is no substitute for the deep understanding that comes from long experience. Very often these contacts are established in opposition and no doubt fall away as ministers come and go, and the life of government extends.

The Government's chief difficulties seem to me to stem less from incompetence than from fatigue. The question now is whether it can escape the trauma of the past two months, or whether there has been one of those so-called irreversible shifts in political opinion that will make a recovery impossible.

I believe that it will escape. It has time and, I hope, the economic cycle on its side. The Opposition lacks experience and is still licking its wounds after unanticipated defeat. The Edinburgh summit was a great success. It demonstrated the ability of the Prime Minister and of a Foreign Office team of outstanding merit. It is essential now to proceed with the Maastricht Bill with speed and determination. Nothing will drag down the confidence and sap the will to govern more than a long drawn-out parliamentary battle.

The Chief Whip should look up the disasters that befell a Labour government as it toiled with House of Lords reform in 1968, and devolution in 1977. The parliamentary party will not settle while the Maastricht Bill is kicking around. It presents too many opportunities for the old and bold to find excuses not to support the Government, and for the new breed of young turks to show their independence and naivity.

Devaluation was a presentational disaster - by its very nature it could not be otherwise - but it has created a chance for the economic revival that most businessmen had despaired of while the exchange rate was fixed too high and interest rates glued to defend it. For the first time in many years, the Treasury's unworldly mandarins are in retreat, and Mr Major must ensure that they are not allowed to regain their position.

An immediate test concerns the proposals to inject private capital into the public-sector infrastructure. Already there are ominous signs that the Treasury is dragging its feet. The reinvigoration of manufacturing industry must be the top priority of government, and there are welcome signs that this is now recognised.

What is left of our industry has great opportunities and, provided the playing field is left tolerably level, a slow but steady recovery is in prospect. Confidence will not be helped, however, by the production of very selective and misleading statistics such as those offered by the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, last week.

In the latter years of the Eighties, we consumed much of our seed-corn. An unenviable task lies ahead. But if those green shoots can be made to grow, the harvest is there for the gathering. The next six months will show whether Mr Major and his colleagues have the capacity to bring it home.

Lord Prior, a cabinet minister in the Heath and Thatcher administrations, is now chairman of GEC.

(Photograph omitted)

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