LEADING ARTICLE: A threadbare challenge from a Nobody

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The Independent Online
NOBODY ever voted for John Major because they were inspired by his vision, moved by his rhetoric or enthused by his policies. He has built his political career on a series of negatives: he became Foreign Secretary because he was not Sir Geoffrey Howe, Chancellor because he was not Nigel Lawson, Prime Minister because he was neither Margaret Thatcher nor Michael Heseltine. He won the 1992 general election because he was not Neil Kinnock. If he wins the leadership contest he called last week, he will do so because he is not Michael Heseltine (again), not Michael Portillo, not Kenneth Clarke. No Tory MP will vote for him because he stands for anything, except for a few pallid abstractions such as decency and moderation. He will offer no manifesto, no statement of aims, no map for the future. His idea of stamping his authority on Tory backbenchers is to tell them that he is "disinclined to decide" on a single currency. That could well serve as an epitaph on John Major's leadership.

All politicians twist and turn; what makes Mr Major exceptional is that, in a position of supreme power, he stands transfixed in the headlights of momentous decisions. Is he for closer European Union or against it? His Euro-sceptic opponents are both right and wrong. Wrong to oppose closer economic and political union in a world where capital, information and labour flow increasingly freely across national boundaries. But right to argue that the halfway houses cannot last long. Mr Major and his cabinet colleagues insist that Britain can remain at the heart of a Europe in which no nation surrenders sovereignty but which nevertheless has an exchange- rate mechanism or even a single currency. No such Europe can exist, as our Continental partners well understand. The freedom to devalue the currency is a fundamental of a sovereign government and Parliament. To relinquish such powers to Brussels, without strengthening the democratic institutions of the EU, is indeed to hand over the country's fate to bankers and bureaucrats. Yet the message from Mr Major is that there is nothing important or urgent to decide.

It is on this kind of evasion that his premiership has been based; we get a clue to Mr Major's views only when tape-recorders betray them. Does he favour lower taxes or not? The Major approach is to declare a commitment to reduce the rate of taxation while simultaneously imposing (through VAT and the manipulation of allowances) higher taxes. Does he want to preserve the welfare state or not? Mr Major offers ringing endorsements while allowing his ministers to chip away at the edges. Does he think that huge executive pay and share option deals in privatised industries are justifiable? He will denounce them but do nothing whatever about regulating them. Does he want to get to the bottom of government connivance in sending arms to Iran and Iraq? He sets up an inquiry and allows it to drag on until everybody has half-forgotten what it was about.

All this is good tactics, but bad government. Mr Major is the ultimate machine man who would have been perfectly at home as an apparatchik in some corner of the former Soviet Union. If he puts his head above the parapet, he almost immediately lowers it in precise proportion. He challenges Euro-sceptic rebels to oppose him openly in a leadership election but then allows Douglas Hurd, their bete noire, to vacate the Foreign Office.

Mr Major's decision to force the election now has been hailed as a bold and brave stroke. It is nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it is just another example of evasion and short-term crisis management. Unable to stand on his own personality, his own policies, his own inspiration, Mr Major will campaign merely on the undoubted fact that he is leader, that it would look pretty bad for the Tories if they were to dump one for the second time in five years and that, if anybody else were elected, the party would probably split and MPs might even face an immediate general election. With all the heavyweights locked inside his cabinet, he will not face a serious opponent; there is nothing very daring about taking on Teresa Gorman or Barry Field or Norman Lamont, the most unpopular Chancellor of the post-war era, and only a very lightweight Prime Minister could turn such people into figures of political consequence. It is as if the Wimbledon men's champion expected to retain his trophy after a match against a ball-boy. It is not even certain, to quote the routine cliches, that boils will be lanced, poisons drained or airs cleared. Suppose that 90 MPs vote against the Prime Minister or abstain and that he carries on, as he would be perfectly entitled to do. He could then face yet another round of whispering. Was he right to continue, people will ask? Can the electorate, MPs will wonder, be expected to give him a vote of confidence when more than a quarter of his own parliamentary party has withheld it?

We are about to witness at least 10 days of feverish Westminster activity: who's in, who's out, who will be reshuffled, who's saying what and why, who's saying nothing and why. All sorts of arcane and dastardly plots will be considered and speculated upon. What the wider public will make of a game played according to rules that almost nobody outside Westminster understands can only be guessed at. But it is certain that this is a sideshow to the great matters that the Conservative Party must, sooner or later, resolve. Is it to be the party of the unbridled free market or will it accept that government still has a role? Is it, once more, to be the party of one nation or will it, as the American Republican party does, in effect write off the poor and dispossessed? Is it, above all, a nationalist party or is it one that is prepared to enter wholeheartedly into the EU and other international groupings? These should be the subjects that preoccupy Tory MPs this weekend, not the latest twists and turns of a Prime Minister who has become an irrelevance to the future of his country and his party.