Face to face with the John phenomenon

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THEY ARE both tall, sparely framed, wear spectacles and have a full mop of grey hair. One is 48 years old, the other 50. Neither is noted for his bonhomie or witty spontaneity. They both like everything to be just so: careful, meticulous, well planned, highly organised.

Somehow, their overgrown schoolboy swot appearance and bank-clerk nature has done them proud. They have both reached the top in their chosen careers. Now, though, they may be on the way down; the signs are that the constituencies they serve have had enough. It is quite uncanny, they could be brothers - except they are both called John.

There are days when it is hard to distinguish between them: John Birt, Director-General of the BBC, and John Major, Prime Minister. Especially these days. At the BBC, endless staff surveys, questionnaires and cringe-making question-and-answer sessions have revealed what Birt and the Board of Governors should have known anyway: a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the Director-General. Meanwhile, at Number 10, Major is the most unpopular Prime Minister since opinion polls began.

Watch the television news, blink and you've missed it. Senior figures lining up to attack John; the man wearing his heart on his sleeve and going before his critics; John asking what they think is wrong - and being told plenty; allies writing in defence of John; he demanding, and getting, a vote of confidence. You can almost hear the question and answer in the pub: 'Which John are they talking about?' 'Dunno mate, they both look the same to me.'

Poking fun at them is confusing as well. People are rude about their clothes. The telly one wears Armani suits, the other selects off the peg - not that you would know, they both look so dull. And they both have smug, cheesy grins when things are going well - which at the moment they aren't.

Their speech doesn't win them friends either. Birt's voice is soft with traces of a Liverpudlian accent. But he lacks the scouser's sharp turn of phrase, preferring all too often to slip into hesitant, off-putting jargon. Major's vowels are dead flat - except when he is roused, when he sounds like a Dalek. You sit there and look at them both, and wonder: how on earth have they managed it?

You can think of 10 people off the top of your head who are just as intelligent, much more inspiring and amusing and speak in a language that everybody understands. Yet this duo from a distant planet have taken two of the most prestigious and powerful jobs this great country of ours has to offer.

Try these on your friends. Which one of them, on taking up his new post, toured his staff and was apparently moved to say to one department chief: 'I'm slightly less dissatisfied with your department than with some others I've visited'? What the hell does that mean? Was he pissed off or wasn't he? Slightly less dissatisfied? Leave it out, John. (Birt)

Who said, of his school, 'I was quite pleased to leave when I could . . .'? Quite pleased? Since when has a teenager been 'quite pleased' about anything? John was, though. (Major)

And which John keeps a record of the weather - rainfall figures, wind speeds and so on - on his ever-so-exciting walking holidays? Major? Wrong, but it could be. (Birt)

I could go on, but you get the picture. There are differences between them, of course. Birt is generally reckoned to be more abrasive than his political counterpart and less forgiving of those who reject his ideas. Not true, say those who have experienced Major's greasy-pole climbing at first hand. They point to last weekend and his description of the Euro-rebels as 'bastards', and his high regard for Lyndon Johnson's famous maxim, as a pretty accurate summary of Major the unprincipled politician.

One way of seeing just how alike they are is to imagine a role swap. If Birt had been at Number 10, would he have introduced the Citizen's Charter and market testing of the Civil Service? You bet he would. As for Birt's Producer Choice - a sort of market testing for BBC departments - it could have been drafted by Major.

Which is when I start to get worried. It is all very well for Sir Norman Fowler, the Tory chairman, to say that he has written to John Birt protesting in the strongest terms about the leak of Major's off-the-record chat with ITN, and asking him to discover how its disclosure came about, but I wonder. What if John, Birt that is, just picked up his phone and asked to be put through to John Major?

The resulting conversation would take politeness and civility to new heights - or depths. 'Hello John, I hope you don't mind if I call you John, it's John here.'

'Not at all, call me John and can I call you John, John?' (Laughter).

'John, I was phoning to say how sorry I am about what has happened. If it was us, then I must apologise, but I would like to think it wasn't anyone at the BBC. It was a live feed and could have been any of the others, you know.'

'I'm glad you called, John. I must say I found it hard to conceive that anyone at the BBC would do such a thing.'

'Well, we're doing all we can to get to the bottom of it. In the meantime, I want to take this opportunity to say how much I admired the way you came through last week. It was very clever of you to demand a vote of confidence like that.'

'Thank you, John. You're very kind. There was something I've been meaning to say to you. I thought you handled that fuss about your tax affairs very skilfully - we both know just how rotten the press can be. (Laughter) Thinking of my vote of confidence, I must say I particularly liked the way your senior people rallied round you and wrote to the papers in your defence.'

'Well, it did cause me a lot of upset and it wasn't my fault. It never occurred to me that it mattered so much whether I was on the staff or not. But you're right, it was good of them to write and support me. Some outsiders said they only did it because I'd appointed them in the first place and their jobs depended on it. But you and I know life's not like that.'

'We do John, we do. I'm glad you phoned because there was another thing I've been meaning to talk to you about. The sort of problems you're having with Producer Choice are not unlike my experiences with the Charter and market testing. No matter how hard we try, employees and the public just don't seem to understand that we really believe in what we're doing and they are the ones that will benefit. We need to find a way of getting the message across.'

'I couldn't agree more. What about getting some people to write in, and somebody like Martyn Lewis to do a phone-in and a big show of hands at the party conference?'

'Wonderful, wonderful. John, would you like to come and work for me?'

'Or what about you coming and working for me?' (Laughter).

Mark Lawson is away.