Leading Article: Give over? Indeed

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THESE ARE desperate days indeed for John Major. On Wednesday, Sir Norman Fowler, the Tory party chairman, could think of nothing better to rouse the Scottish party faithful than an attack on Lord Rees-Mogg. In his column in the Times two days earlier, Lord Rees-Mogg had written of the Prime Minister: 'He is not a natural leader; he cannot speak; he has a weak Cabinet which he has chosen; he lacks self-confidence; he has no strategy or direction.' He said that, like Eden and Douglas-Home, Major was a failure as Prime Minister. But at least his predecessors had been strong Foreign Secretaries; Mr Major's natural level was deputy chief whip. Sir Norman described all this 'as the authentic voice of the patrician tendency: pure snobbery'. He was guilty of 'class division, prejudice and a wholly blinkered and outdated view of the world'.

It is a measure of how little the Tories understand the mood of the country that they should think an outbreak of patrician prejudice persuaded the people of Newbury, Somerset, Essex and elsewhere to register anti- Government votes at this month's polls. True, Lord Rees-Mogg's criticisms were ill- chosen. Mr Major's speaking abilities, for example, have nothing to do with his performance in Downing Street and, after 12 years of Margaret Thatcher, the nation may think it has had enough of natural leaders and their self-confidence. But Lord Rees-Mogg's views - which have never commanded wide attention in the nation's bars and workplaces - are irrelevant. The issue is not John Major's personality. The issue is the same as it has been for 14 years: government policies, and their manner of execution. Rail privatisation would not be a better policy if it were explained by Abraham Lincoln. John Patten's school tests would be bad even if they had the fire of an Aneurin Bevan behind them.

Because the pollsters got it wrong in 1992, because the outcome so defied conventional electoral wisdom, ministers now believe that they and they alone can divine the public will, that they can permanently defy the laws of political gravity. This is what persuades ministers to stick with policies that are both wrong and unpopular. For months after the election, they kept the pound in the exchange rate mechanism at patently too high a rate, apparently believing the evidence of British economic weakness would prove as flimsy as the evidence of opinion polls. The Prime Minister made no apology for this in his speech to the Scottish party conference on Friday - only for errors that could be laid at the door of his predecessor as Chancellor, Nigel Lawson. Again, he gave no hint that he would reconsider the disastrous course of rail privatisation, despite the growing signs (which we report on page one) of rebellion on the Tory backbenches. On the contrary, he promised - presumably in a reference to this policy - 'red meat' for the next parliamentary programme.

John Patten's performance at education provides the best current example of ministerial arrogance and stubbornness. The policy is sound and potentially popular. There is substantial support for a national curriculum - even from the opposition parties - and for tests to check pupils' performance. But from its inception in 1988 the execution of policy was flawed. Ministers constructed a curriculum that was far too detailed and wide-ranging and a system of testing that has become a bureaucratic nightmare, distracting teachers from the business of educating children. They have by stages grudgingly retreated, cutting the range of the curriculum and making the tests less complex. But still they insist that the show stays on the road, that a 12,000-mile service is needed rather than a new engine. This year's tests will go ahead, Mr Patten announced last week, despite the certainty of a teachers' boycott. The ministerial gut says that the Government can always win a confrontation with teachers. That counts for more than the overwhelming support for a boycott shown by the union ballots and the startling parental opposition to the present testing plans shown by a poll in the Independent last week.

'Give over,' said Mr Major on Friday to his critics. A phrase (probably last heard from Wilfred Pickles in the 1950s) that would, no doubt, cause Lord Rees-Mogg to curl his patrician lip. But we should not mind the phrase. It is Mr Major and his ministers who should 'give over'.