John Major nears the zero option

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DAVID MELLOR, reviewing the newspapers on television at the weekend, complained that the press was full of advice for John Major. This was not entirely true. Admittedly, the possibility of a referendum on Europe was revealed to be the right's ransom demand for the hostage of Downing Street, but this seems likely to lead to the death of the hostage, while the Tory sects tear themselves apart again over the vocabulary and punctuation of the question(s) to be set.

No, in general, the newspapers are full of obituaries of John Major, which is a specialised kind of advice. In medical terms, the doctors at the end of the bed have moved on from 'These are the four possible courses of treatment' to 'Look, is there anything you've always wanted to do? A cruise, a holiday somewhere . . .'

Indeed, Mr Major has now reached the rare political condition of being more or less beyond advice. Margaret Thatcher was, in her final crisis, invulnerable to suggestion, but in a different way. There were things she might have done to save herself - for example, abolition of the community charge - but she was lost in the terminal deafness of self-certainty. Her successor's difficulty is not principally an unwillingness to listen but the absence of any plausible suggestions to be whispered into his ears.

A show of party unity? This traditional Conservative response to catastrophe has again been enacted in recent days, with Kenneth Clarke, Michael Howard and Michael Heseltine touring their 'He ain't stupid, he's my brother' line about the Prime Minister around the news shows. Mr Major, however, has a problem analagous to that of Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford, the actor husband and model wife who last week took a full-page advertisement in the Times to deny press speculation that they were a) gay and b) estranged.

Comparatively few married couples have found it necessary to spend pounds 20,000 on a public declaration that they are heterosexual. Comparatively few prime ministers have required hourly announcements from their colleagues that they are remaining in office. In both cases, the denial is an admission of a serious problem, if only one of perception. At this point, John Major might murmur: 'Yes, but what this shows is the irresponsibility of the press. Just as there exists no evidence that Mr Gere is gay, so it is mere gossip that I am a doomed incompetent.'

But speculation about Mr Major's departure is not malicious; or, rather, it is not just malicious. During October 1990, the month before he lunged at Mrs Thatcher, Michael Heseltine decisively established in the public mind that Tory protestations of loyalty to the incumbent leader are to be regarded as no more than a tactic. Mr Heseltine legitimised media speculation of Tory regicide, particularly when, as now, he is himself one of those talking down such theories. Similarly, Michael Portillo licensed accusations of party disunity with his out-of-line sound-bites on European unity.

A Cabinet reshuffle? Backed by Tories as diverse as Sir Edward Heath and Sir George Gardiner, this proposal rests on a piece of false logic. Examining the present Cabinet - at least two of whom should properly represent the constituency of Barking - the observer thinks: they must be able to do better than this. Examination of the junior ministerial ranks and the back benches, however, establishes that this is not the case. The Tory problem is not errors of selection but a crisis of talent. To adapt a favourite Majorism, what you see is what they've got. The one beneficial consequence of a reshuffle for Mr Major would be that the cult of Mr Portillo - the absurd eulogising of whom by right-wing Tories represents the triumph of their hope over his inexperience - would surely not long survive his stewardship of a proper department.

Sacking his advisers? It is often observed that John Major does not have many friends left. What is odder is that the friends he has are, actually, other people's friends. Even more bizarrely, they are principally Baroness Thatcher's. Those surrounding him - Lord Archer, Sir Tim Bell, Sir Norman Fowler and, most recently, Sir Bernard Ingham - are all retreads from his predecessor's court. Indeed, Lord Archer seems to occupy a kind of quasi- constitutional position of PM's Friend, remaining in the role despite a change in administrations and the general tensions between Thatcherites and Majorettes.

The problem is that whatever the track record of these people - aides to longest-serving prime minister of the century, blah blah blah - their specific history of getting leaders through apparently terminal popularity crises is not encouraging. Logic dictates a change of advisers. Yet Mr Major's one personal creation in this area - the recruitment of Sarah Hogg from journalism to his Policy Unit - is generally regarded as a disaster. Perhaps, again, it is the case that what you see is what he's got.

An ideological redesign? After the catastrophe of 'back to basics', the Prime Minister will be well aware that ideas can bite back. There is, however, a philosophy which, however shallow, is playing well with Middle England at the moment. It is a kind of muscular nostalgia, represented by Wake Up England], the new Paul Johnson tract lavishly serialised by the Daily Mail; by the Prince of Wales's speech last week about the importance of proper grammar and smacking children; and by the sudden new posthumous cult of the cuddly poet John Betjeman.

This philosophy screens lantern slides of a past in which beer was cheap, children were polite, double-barrelled belles played tennis, and England was England. The obstacle for Mr Major is that he dare not mention the past, for half of his problem is the section of his party that harks back; and he dare not mention England, given his European confusions.

So what, then? It's often said that the agony of politics is deciding between different options. But there is also the final agony of finding there are no options left. John Major looks close to that.

Perhaps - in a variation of the latest bonkers concept from the Education Secretary, whose survival is a measure of the Government's talent crisis - Conservative MPs might be 'streamed'. Just as John Patten has envisaged that schoolchildren who know the nuts and bolts of procreation will be separated from those who still believe the story of the stork, so backbench Conservatives could be arranged in sets. The Europhile lads could be told the naughty bits of Brussels legislation, while the Europhobe wallflowers were read the legend of St George. There would, though, still be the risk of smutty talk behind the bike sheds ('We did 'subsidiarity' today').

Ironically - comically, some of us would say - there was a small sign of hope for Mr Major in last week's local elections. If I were John Smith, it would terrify me that so many people chose to react to the most detested government in modern history by voting Liberal Democrat rather than Labour.

There would still, against natural justice and morality, be a chance of Mr Major winning a general election. But, first he has to beat the Conservative Party in a panic. And that will be far harder.

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