Leading Article: John Major returns from the dead

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The Independent Online
THESE DAYS it is unfashionable to offer religious explanations for political phenomena. Yet the about-turn in John Major's fortunes over the past six weeks is a resurrection, and a miraculous one at that. In May, the Prime Minister's stock was so low that all Westminster believed he would not survive the inevitable challenge to his leadership after the Conservative Party conference this autumn. Today, he seems set not merely to survive, but also to avoid a challenge altogether. With John Carlisle now unlikely to serve as a stalking-horse, aspirants to the Tory leadership are left unable to move against Mr Major this year, but uncertain how long his good fortune can last.

The most striking feature of this change is how little the voters had to do with it. Mr Major made no appeal to the electorate over the heads of Westminster politicians. He mounted no soap-boxes, as he did in the fateful final days before the 1992 election. He did nothing to repair his jaded reputation with those local Conservatives who helped to confirm him in power two years ago. It was in Westminster itself, in fact, that the Prime Minister found his salvation.

He undoubtedly owes a debt to Douglas Hurd, who helped to broker an uneasy truce in the war between the pro-European and anti-European wings of the party with his espousal of the old doctrine of 'variable geometry' - namely the idea that different members of the European Union can deepen their co-operation with each other in different areas at different speeds. The acceptance of this notion is more a symbol of changing mood in the party than proof of the merits of the idea itself, which are no greater this year than they were last year or in 1992.

The veto of the candidacy of Jean-Luc Dehaene for the presidency of the European Commission was a decision for which Mr Major can take more direct credit. His action at the European Council may yet rebound, given that Britain might feel obliged to accept instead a man of lesser competence or greater ideological federalism than the Belgian premier. But it signalled to the Tory back benches that the days of staking out extreme positions in Brussels and then reversing them - as happened so unfortunately in the row over qualified majority voting - are over (at least for the next few weeks). And it marked a turning point in the party's progress from outright civil warfare to uneasy truce - even if the Tories' European problem is far from solved.

The political climate has also improved. A relatively poor Liberal Democrat performance in the European elections allowed the Tories to avert the catastrophe that seemed to face them; and steadily improving economic news, culminating in the Treasury's decision last week to upgrade its forecast of growth for this year and next to 2.75 per cent, has made Conservatives feel more cheerful than they did in the spring. Some see the prospect of Tony Blair as Labour leader as helpful, too, since his charms may help to split the anti-Tory vote in Liberal marginals in the South. They are wrong, though, in dismissing Mr Blair as ultimately too young and lightweight to have sustained appeal to the voters.

With this mixture of luck and better party management, Mr Major may feel more confident as he prepares for his midsummer reshuffle. But he is far from secure. The recovery may now be certain, but the debt that hangs over many households and the faintness of the twitchings in the housing market mean that there is precious little for voters to feel good about.

The state of the economy now, with stable growth but no boom remotely in sight, is an economist's dream, but a politician's nightmare. Mr Major has won himself, at some cost, an unexpected breathing space. His position, however, depends on an improvement in Tory fortunes next year. As far as that is concerned, there are more questions than certainties.