John Major, Leader of the Opposition

One solution for the Tories after yesterday's timid tinkering is to stop pretending they are in power
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The Independent Online
The Queen's Speech brought its customary bulletin on the health of our parliamentary culture. "What a pathetic bunch ... a tawdry, low-life, demeaning exercise in political tactics,'' said the Leader of the Opposition. "Childish, juvenile nonsense ... total baloney,'' replied the Prime Minister. On the other hand, to be positive, no Members actually dropped their trousers and waggled their bottoms at the other side - but then, I couldn't see the whole chamber clearly.

High politics it wasn't, neither in the debate nor in the ideas being debated. The most interesting thought of the day came from Tony Blair when he suggested that the asylum and immigration measures be put before a standing committee of the Commons, taking evidence about the bogus asylum- seeker problem, so that consensus could be achieved and race be kept out of politics.

That would scupper any attempt to use this issue to divide the parties - as a Tory strategist had chillingly suggested a few weeks ago. On the other hand, it would prevent Labour from continuing to question the Conservatives' bona fides, as Jack Straw and Tony Blair have been doing. This would shut both sides up.

Among those nodding his vigorous agreement when Blair suggested it was Jim Lester, the One Nation Tory and close friend of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Major had an urgent muttered conversation with Tony Newton, the Leader of the Commons, who was sitting beside him. He said he would consider the idea, but wasn't immediately attracted to it. He didn't say why not; the main reason was surely the direction it came from, and the fact it was thrown out without warning as a debating point. But it would be a good gauntlet for him to stoop and pick up. Blair would win credit; but so would Major. It would be good for the reputation of politics.

Which, of course, would mark it out from most of what is fated to happen over the next year or so, as this marathon mud-fight of an election campaign slithers on. It is not going to be an heroic period. The Queen's Speech was a mixture of blatantly second-order party political issues, chosen not for their importance to Britain but for the way they will sharpen differences between the parties, and mildly interesting administrative measures.

We should not be censorious about the party-dividing issues, the asylum Bill and the measures on grant-maintained schools and the Bill on media ownership. You can't be in favour of democracy and against party politics. Not yet, anyway. But these measures may seem a little too blatantly party- inspired to do the Tories much good in the country.

As Douglas Hurd elegantly suggested in the context of divorce reform, "in this climate, political success goes to those who sound least like politicians''. The wisest saying of the day, that should be carved in tropical hardwood and hung across the door of the Commons chamber.

The media Bill should be seen partly as a party matter simply because anything that touches the ownership of newspapers and broadcasting companies is now so intensely sensitive. It is the place where private power and political power are currently clinching. The new measure would have two politically interesting effects. It raises just just enough of a question- mark over the longer-term future of Rupert Murdoch's newspaper holdings to make him pause when Tory ministers suggest that he shows a bit of loyalty in the run-up to the election.

It would also open the way for Associated Newspapers, owner of the Daily Mail, to pounce on Yorkshire Television or Tyne-Tees, or both. Immediately after mentioning the measure yesterday Mr Major stated that "we, as a party, have a long tradition of helping those in need''. He may have meant the measures on homelessness he went on to discuss; but for a split second, one had the surreal impression that he was talking about Lord Rothermere.

Well, as I say, we mustn't be censorious. Everything bar race is fair game in politics. And there is also the usual raft of measures that come under the broad heading of administrative reform - changes to the way disabled people get funding, training measures, housing, an extension of the powers of the under-employed security service to become involved in the drugs war, changes to court procedures and so on.

These raise bitter passions among special interest groups and the closed order of political obsessives, but none is likely to raise a weary eyebrow in Kenneth Clarke's fabled saloon bar, the Dog and Duck. For that we must await his Budget, when the income-tax cuts long predicted by this newspaper may set the national debate alive in a way the Queen's Speech hasn't.

In the good times, sensible administrative reforms and the odd bold stroke which suggests a longer-term programme of change are enough to get governments re-elected. But these are not good times, or at least, not good enough times.

Had the economy been growing really strongly and the housing market moving, then the significance of, for instance, the education reforms would have seemed more substantial. Part of the trick of democratic politics is to give a sense of forward movement. When a government seems young and virile that can be done with relative modest legislation, like the early Thatcher trade union reforms, because we assume that the measures will accumulate; we judge the political intention as well as the immediate legal wording.

The core of this government's dilemma, as exposed yesterday, is that it seems old. It cannot convey forward energy or a sense of its own future. So these measures, administrative or political, fail to fit into a wider pattern of reform. They don't lead anywhere. What is supposed to follow nursery vouchers, or the asylum measures, or the Broadcasting Bill?

There is no grand project for the Conservatives, nothing to make our nape-hairs prickle; or at least nothing that is plausibly deliverable by this party now. They can talk about a low-tax, shrunken state but they have little idea of how they would get there. There are other right-wing projects on offer, such as withdrawal from the European Union or the dismantling of the free National Health Service, but they are not practical politics.

The Conservatives are in serious danger of having the worst of both worlds, being attacked by Labour for their right-wing rhetoric - Blair is labelling them "extremists'' in just the same way as President Clinton is going for the Republican leaders in Congress - while failing to deliver populist measures. In private many senior ministers seem frustrated and boxed-in - and not surprisingly.

Their last way out is to convince the country that the only grand project that is on offer, the Labour-Liberal programme for political change in Scotland and at Westminster, is horribly dangerous - that life under a ministry of administrative tinkerers may be dispiriting, but that it's better than rule by reformers. That would mean the Conservatives ceasing to think of themselves as a government and becoming, in effect, an opposition in office. On the strength of yesterday's programme, that may well be the plan.

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