Come clean, Prime Minister, say what you mean

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A NATION pricks up its ears. It has long been puzzled by that sphinx-like face, with its bland language and unconvincing bonhomie. Now, by accident, the mask has slipped. His anti-Maastricht critics are 'bastards'. More strikingly, the Thatcher era is derided as 'a golden age that never was'. That sounds like a human being speaking.

And it was the authentic John Major, not the mannequin marched out for television interviews. This is the moody, tactical, salty-tongued leader his friends know, a man fizzing with exasperation, a man whose exterior calm hides a passionate, unpredictable personality. From his perspective, 'bastards' is a wholly reasonable description of the various rebels and British-nationalist snipers who infest the remoter suburbs of the party he is trying to lead.

The outburst, of only a few seconds' duration, both summarises Mr Major's problem and shows him the only possible way out of it. It was the most honest thing the wider public (rather wider than he bargained for) has heard him say. But because of its honesty, he found it embarrassing.

He is yoked to the bastards. He sits around the cabinet table with some of them. They will shrug and laugh off his honest words but they will never forget them. And as for the golden Thatcher era, to which they give their true loyalty, what aspects of it does the current Prime Minister believe never happened? Which of its boasted achievements were only invented retrospectively? Was she not tough enough on the unions? Were the privatisations and the monetarist experiments mere fraud?

There are answers to these questions, but Mr Major cannot utter them without offending the Thatcherites even more bitterly. He could say that Thatcherite attitudes to manufacturing were mistaken. (But he would rather not.) He could say that her attitudes to inflation and public spending were insufficiently rigorous. (But then he would have to do better, over the long-term, than she did. Is he really determined to?)

Above all, he could say that her visceral nationalism jeopardised Britain's true national interests in Europe. (But Bill Cash, no less, has been asked to help draw up a Tory European manifesto. What next? Lord Rees-Mogg for Foreign Secretary?)

Mr Major is, it would appear, in an impossible position. In order to bind the post-Thatcherite party together, he carefully muffled his own views on Europe . . . on his predecessor . . . on rather a lot of things. He had convinced himself that he had no alternative: or, again in his own words: 'I would have split the Conservative Party into smithereens.' So he kept mum. He bottled it up. Taunted beyond all resonable endurance, he smiled. Even last week, his public policy was to welcome the rebels back into the fold. Ho, ho]

But had that honest little conversation not reached the outside world, the tactic could not have succeeded indefinitely. The more he appeases them, the more these people will hate and despise him. You cannot appease, placate or soothe a party with severe problems. You can only try to lead it - marshal your arguments, stand by them, confront everyone who disagrees and, if overpowered, go down fighting. You may make tactical retreats and occasionally feint. But you may not compromise on your central direction.

By doing so, Mr Major has got himself into a bind whose inherent absurdity is becoming ever clearer. He won't allow himself to be a right-wing Thatcherite nationalist. And his party won't allow him to be a Christian Democrat: as recently as Thursday, cabinet colleagues were refusing to countenance the idea of accepting the Social Chapter. Mr Major chafes under the Thatcherite inheritance. But he cannot throw it off.

So what can he do? This is not, after all, a John Major problem. It is about the curious and straining coalition that is the post-Thatcher Conservative Party. Any leader would be faced with the same choice of exacerbating its internal problems, or of leading from the back.

So he can, he must, fight, making clear his objections to the Thatcherite record, and acknowledging his Europeanism. As his French visitors pointed out yesterday, the great European issues will not go away. Britain needs a credible and serious position in the arguments ahead, but so long as Mr Major pretends to clasp the rebels to his breast he will sound neither credible nor serious. He would have been in a much stronger position if, immediately after his election victory, he had broken with the past and refused to muffle his own Europhile principles. When ministers warned him that they might be driven to resignation, he should have told them: 'walk'. Faced by a determined Prime Minister, they would have stayed.

Compromise was the error which has proved near-fatal. Compromise has been the enemy, not the rebels, who crumpled when faced with a really serious threat.

Most people will have been amused and sympathetic to read Mr Major's fervent words. Some of his party colleagues, not surprisingly, are mortified or furious. But Mr Major has to learn to appeal first to the country and worry less about the party. It was odd that his most convincing comments should have emerged through the malice of journalists or television engineers. But now everyone knows what he feels, he might as well come clean and finish the conversation in public. He has little left to lose.