Gloves on for Honest John, the great survivor

The Prime Minister's speech showed a self-confident man who could still pull off the awesome task of regaining the nation's trust
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The Independent Online
It ain't over. Those sleek magnates who have decided that Labour must inevitably form the next government would be well advised to make a few friendly calls on Tory ministers, just in case. John Major's speech was not, contrary to the common view, the best he has ever given. But it laid out with vital clarity the scares and hopes that will dominate politics until the election. A fight is on.

Until he rose, this had been an incoherent conference. There was swagger and belligerence enough, but no real sense that the Tories believed their own propaganda. Ministers have been jousting for the post-Major succession, sending conflicting messages as a result. In private, they often seemed flat. Bright Tories on left and right are agonising about how to reshape the party in opposition. The Alan Howarth defection and reaction to Michael Portillo's speech sent just the wrong messages.

The Prime Minister has not wiped out these miseries, but he reminded all of us what a fighter he is; there was not the slightest quiver of defeatism or self-doubt. If you closed your eyes and took a deep breath you could almost believe him when he talked of a fifth election victory. He is going to use scare-tactics against Labour; but he has some quite scary scares. More than that, though, he painted a picture of a Conservative future which was compelling enough to be treated seriously. However you look at it, that was an hour well spent.

And he enjoyed spending it. For he seems what he is, a man who has finally throttled his private demons. For most of his premiership, he has been haunted by the danger of the Conservative Party breaking into two over Europe. This looks less likely now than at any time since the heyday of Thatcherism.

Just as important, he has confronted the preparers of putsch. John Redwood, on the sidelines, and Michael Portillo, on the platform, seemed much less threatening figures than a year ago. Major's self-confidence was reflected in his subtle but unmistakeable rebukes to Portillo for the tone of his speech; the Government must advance its case "firmly and courteously'' and try to understand the thinking of continental politicians.

He has defeated the men of the right, even if the ideas of the right continue to spread. Even then, Major's anti-federalist but pro-European message was surer and straighter than ever before. He thinks he is winning those arguments. And he is.

Feeling more comfortable in his shoes enabled him to try to counter Alan Howarth's attack on the brutishness of modern Toryism and answer Labour's saucy claim to have inherited the mantle of One Nationism. He did it not merely by asserting the truisms of Iain Macleod's brand of socially concerned Toryism but by trying to make himself a living symbol of that embattled tradition. He spoke movingly of his father's business struggles and reminded us that "I know what it's like when the money for the week runs out by Thursday.''

This matters because during modern general elections, politics is almost reduced to personality. The Tories want the next one to curl round the contrast between a plain, unrhetorical, self-made English commoner, the People's John, and a comfortable, slick, upper-class opponent, Islington Anthony. To pit classless Toryism against snooty, corporatist new Labour is a trick almost as cheeky as Labour's embrace of big business. It reverses the moral choice we expect to make. It's another example of our disorientating Nineties politics. But Labour would be wise to feel uneasy.

There are limits, of course, to the honesty of Honest John. All politicians promise to tell the plain truth; then promptly forget to do so; yesterday's speech was no exception. The Prime Minister promised to drive spending and taxes down, but then ran through a new list of spending commitments on policing and education. Hard choices remain, for conference purposes, entirely abstract choices.

On tax, the promise of cuts was there, as it had been in Kenneth Clarke's come-on speech the day before. But look at his priorities; it is hard to understand how One Nation classlessness fits with making the abolition of inheritance tax a top priority.

On education, he lauded choice and excellence for everybody. But until he is ready to allow considerable numbers of surplus places in schools, most children will have little or no choice. Doubling the assisted places scheme was a shrewd way of opening a bigger gap with Labour. But the more children who get out of comprehensive schools, the worse those schools will be. He may regard it as a price worth paying; but to pretend that there is no social price was not an example of the plain truth-telling Major had advertised a few minutes earlier.

On Scotland, the equation of Labour proposals to allow tax bands to vary into the unequivocal statement that Scottish families would pay pounds 6 extra a week was typical politician-speak. So was the dismissal of the Scottish parliamentary proposals as the result of Labour gutlessness, sweeping to one side the constant preferences of most people there for decades. On the constitution generally there was a dismal failure of the Tory imagination for which the party will one day pay heavily.

So across some of the key policies there are examples of the evasions and "doublethink'' for which Major criticised Tony Blair. Philosophically, he is no more coherent than the Labour leader; like all politicians he wants low taxes and high spending, talks tough, then prevaricates.

The odd thing, though, is that his fudges and inconsistencies don't make him seem a cynical or silly man. He appears consistent, the same all the way through, a politician who believes in himself - even if at times he has been the last person in the country who does. Because of that, it isn't quite impossible that Major will persuade people to trust him again. He is the great survivor of modern politics. His task is still awesome, but after yesterday, anyone who writes him off is a simpleton.