Failures that will outlast a change of face: The Tories may regard John Major as their main liability. But the party's troubles run much deeper, says John Curtice

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The Independent Online
PRIME ministers and football managers have always had much in common. Football managers are reliant on the teamwork of their players, while prime ministers depend on the cohesion and effectiveness of their ministers. Football managers have to live within the financial resources of their clubs, prime ministers within the means of the nation.

Now it seems another analogy can be drawn. Whatever his inheritance, no football manager's job is secure if his club faces the threat of relegation. Similarly, faced with the apparent prospect of electoral disaster in this year's double poll test in the local and European elections, some Tory backbenchers have started calling for the Prime Minister's head.

But would ditching John Major do the Conservatives any good? Do the Conservatives' problems not run deeper than anything that a change of face at the top can correct?

In the back of every Tory (and Labour) MP's mind is the precedent of 1990. Before Mrs Thatcher's downfall, the Conservatives were 15 points behind Labour in the polls. Once John Major became Prime Minister, the Tories raced into a five-point lead. Most crucially of all, he went on to deliver the party its fourth successive general election victory, despite the fiasco of the poll tax and the depth of the recession. Furthermore, Mr Major is far more unpopular now than Mrs Thatcher was four years ago. According to Mori, satisfaction with John Major has hovered just above the 20 per cent mark for the past few months. Mrs Thatcher could still score 30 per cent in the last months of her premiership.

The trouble is, the Conservative Party's ratings are far worse than four years ago on pretty well every other count as well. Little more than one in 10 people is satisfied with the Government compared with more than one in five in 1990. While only just over a half thought the party was divided in 1990, as many as three-quarters do so now. More people even trust Labour to handle the economy than they do the Conservatives.

And indeed, for what they are worth, the opinion polls give less reason today than they did four years ago to believe that a change of leader would give the party a boost. In November 1990, the polls suggested that replacing Thatcher with Heseltine would be worth a 7 per cent swing. NOP's poll for this week's Independent on Sunday shows that replacing Major with Heseltine would be worth a 2 per cent swing. According to Gallup, 11 per cent would be more inclined to vote Conservative if Mr Major went, compared with 27 per cent four years ago in the event of Mrs Thatcher going.

This government's troubles really started in September 1992, on 'Black Wednesday' when the pound was forced out of the exchange rate mechanism. Tory support fell from 41 per cent in August to 32 per cent by November. Whatever the beneficial effects on interest rates of ERM withdrawal, it was seen by the public as a defeat for Britain's pride and position in the world. Further, ministers were palpably not in control of events, undermining public confidence in the Conservatives' ability to handle the economy.

It was in truth just like an old- fashioned 'sterling crisis', similar to the devaluation of the pound in 1967 and the IMF crisis in 1976. The political consequences of those two crises match almost exactly the experience of the Major government. Labour's poll rating was 41 per cent in September 1967 - by December it was 32 per cent. Harold Wilson's subsequent by-election record was as miserable as John Major's in Newbury and Christchurch. Jim Callaghan's government fell from 42 per cent in the polls in September 1976 to as low as 30 per cent in November.

Both those governments did eventually recover. Labour was in the lead by the spring of 1970, enough to tempt Harold Wilson into calling an early election. Jim Callaghan was neck and neck with Margaret Thatcher by autumn 1978. Both also ultimately succumbed to defeat, however. Sterling crises eat deep into public confidence and seem to leave a lasting impression.

'Black Wednesday', unfortunately for him, was just the beginning of Mr Major's problems. Taxation pledges have been broken. 'Back to basics' foundered on the rock of ministerial infidelity. Throughout there have also been constant divisions on Europe. Together they have left the abiding impression of a divided government unable to control events.

No government has suffered such a trail of misfortune since the Callaghan government in the 'winter of discontent' in 1978-79. Then it faced serious party divisions over pay policy and was overwhelmed by a series of public sector strikes. The result was an image of incompetence and chaos that the Conservatives were able to exploit mercilessly throughout the 1980s. Now they have just three years in which to erase the public memory of their misfortunes. So, changing the leader should not be seen as a panacea for the party's ills. The events of the last 18 months have affected people's perceptions of the party, not just of its leader.

But leaders can play a big role in influencing public perceptions, not just of themselves but also of their party. The real question that Tory MPs face is not whether any of his possible successors has a better public image than John Major, but whether they might be more successful at managing what is a deeply divided party.

Until now, John Major's greatest strength has been that he was evidently better able to keep his party united than anyone else. But the debacle of 'back to basics' and the row about qualified majority voting were serious failures of party management which exacerbated rather than mended divisions in the party. Heseltine has emerged as a healer: able to make soothing noises to left and right. And while a new manager may be no guarantee against relegation, a team in trouble needs the best manager it can get.

The author is senior lecturer in politics at Strathclyde University.