Confidence and frustration inside Number 10

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The Independent Online
THE contrast between Downing Street as seen from beyond its Whitehall gates and the view from within is a truly startling one. From the outside, newspaper editors, many senior civil servants, MPs - and, the polls claim, most voters - see the dim shape of a struggling, bankrupt administration, purposeless and probably doomed. But standing on the inside looking out, John Major and his senior ministers are confident that the Nineties belong to them: their hold on the place is complete and unshakable.

Quite a few of the more influential ministers muse about their plans for the next decade. They worry about the size of their real majority, but do not take the possibility of being defeated by Labour seriously. They believe the turmoil and crisis-laden atmosphere of today will melt away and be forgotten. They are surrounded by hostile, fist-shaking critics. They seem almost friendless. But they have the wherewithal to outlast the besiegers.

Above all, they remember that the voters don't remember - at least for long. The Conservative Party is an organisation of political survivors. The Boundary Commission changes, which ministers expect will move 10 or 11 seats from Labour to the Conservatives (producing a net gain, in terms of any majority over Labour, of up to 22), are expected to have become law by the summer of 1995. That means that Mr Major will, depending on by-election losses, be defending an effective majority not of 20, but of around 35-40 seats.

More important still, all senior ministers take for granted that they will be able to go to the country at a time when the economy has been growing steadily for many months. Never again, they promise, will the Tories get the economic and political cycles so dangerously out of kilter as happened in 1992. Though Mr Major was not involved in any such speculation when he spoke to this newspaper on Tuesday evening, many of his ministers have already pencilled in the spring of 1996 as the likeliest election date.

There is, in short, bags of time. The most immediate threat to this happy vision is the European recession. Although Mr Major said he was confident that the British economy could grow even when the French and German economies were nosing downwards, a prolonged and severe continental recession could knock back a full recovery here for a year or more. If that happened, the sheer persistence of economic misery could produce a political climate in Britain so hostile to the Conservatives that they would be unable to win even in the mid-Nineties.

The bigger question is whether the Prime Minister has the necessary vision and drive. Is he, the critics ask, big enough for the job? Physically and emotionally, he clearly is. I found him thinner, harder- edged and more intense than on previous meetings. He was both less bouncy and a little steelier. The old self-deprecating charm is there, but the old relaxation is not. He overflows with frustration about the problems of getting his message across. He sees many enemies.

But these are the changes you would expect from a Prime Minister who has been politically battered and who does, after all, have many enemies. His Cabinet colleagues worry sometimes about his appetite for dramatic ultimatums, and a sudden resignation during some future European crisis. They have a point, since he asked friends whether he should resign if he lost the Maastricht vote last November. But he retains a lively enthusiasm and energy which, given the circumstances, is rather remarkable.

Stamina is a necessary condition for success, but certainly not a sufficient one. Like John Smith, Mr Major is far more impressive in a small company than on a platform or in a television studio. He is right to argue that much of his inability to get his side of the story over ('There is a revolution going on, and people can't see it]') can be blamed on Maastricht and the recession. But there is also the question of his own style and language.

He will never be a golden orator, and can do little to change that. But some of his Whitehall friends believe that the Downing Street machine is making matters worse by overloading him and allowing too much influence to young, right-wing Tory partisans. The abrasive leftie-bashing of his Carlton Club speech and the failure of Downing Street to spot looming problems, such as the coal closures, are citedas examples of poor political feel.

He has no single office that acts as a gateway to him and can speak for him. On many occasions, Mr Major receives three separate sets of briefing papers for each decision he must take - one from the Cabinet Office, one from the Policy Unit and one from his Private Office. Mandarins fret that he has not put aside enough time for good briefing or longer-term thinking, and that he needs to institute a thorough overhaul of his own department. They worry that second-rate government machinery and the imperatives of daily political warfare have obscured Mr Major's instinct for the mood of the country.

Certainly the question of why one of the plainest, least-swaggering leaders Britain has had finds it so hard to get his message across is a real one. That message is no secret - traditional Conservatism with a dash of anti-statist radicalism and a deep enthusiasm for Europe. He sounds most impassioned when he is talking about widening Europe and the need for a renaissance of British manufacturing. He has plenty to say.

The problem is really the willingness of the world outside Downing Street to listen. The long Tory war over Europe has robbed him of the sure friends outside Downing Street that most Conservative leaders can rely on. The anti-European rebels are influential in virtually all of the Tory press, and because of that the Prime Minister is a lonelier figure today than Margaret Thatcher ever was at the depths of her unpopularity. He has no gang.

He can do nothing about this. The only thing is to wait, and wait, and refuse to break, in the belief that victory on Maastricht, and then recovery, will turn today's contemptuous critics into tomorrow's fawning admirers. Mr Major is waiting. I could detect no evidence of him breaking. This could be a rather long siege.