Leading Article: Major needs his own vision

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IN 1981, Margaret Thatcher had to deal with a crisis in some ways similar to the one that John Major faces. Her government was highly unpopular: the economy was emerging from a deep recession and unemployment was close to three million. Urban riots focused general discontent, while within the Conservative Party there was concern that the government was drifting. As Jim Prior notes in A Balance of Power: 'The rhetoric was trenchant: 'no U-turns', no support for 'lame ducks', the 'market place' had to decide. Yet the practice was to grant considerable government aid for a whole range of industries, particularly steel and BL.'

However, the Conservatives went on to win a 144-seat majority in the 1983 general election. Their survival owed much to a number of retreats combined with a clear sense of long-term strategy and a soundly based economic recovery. Thus, in February 1981, the government gave in to the miners under the threat of strike action. However, Mrs Thatcher also had a long-term plan to reform industrial relations, which with extra coal stocks led to the miners' defeat four years later.

As the Prime Minister today tacks and manoeuvres, carried by only a small Commons majority, there is little sense that he has a broad, long-term vision. The feebleness of leadership amid the inevitable retreats is more reminiscent of the dying months of the Callaghan government in 1978-79.

The old Thatcherite agenda is tarnished: reforms in health and education have failed to deliver promised gains. Council house sell-offs have lost some allure in the wake of the property slump. Meanwhile, just as support for the radical programme is waning, Mr Major wants to introduce some of the most difficult and long-delayed privatisations, British Rail and the Royal Mail. Knighted shire MPs will not want branch lines and sub-post offices closed.

So John Major must decide how much farther he can take the country down a Thatcherite road. He must not fall into the trap that caught George Bush as he failed to adapt and develop Reaganism. And Mr Major must consider his own disenchanted supporters; not only the vocal anti-Maastricht rebels but ordinary Tories. The Conservatives have lost their claim to be uniquely effective in controlling crime, an issue close to Tory hearts. Their voters in the South- east have also been hit hardest by the recession. Mr Major does not seem to be looking after his own.

The Prime Minister has about a year to prove he has a vision that his party will recognise as an election winner. To that end, he is handicapped by his own poverty of language. His reflective moments produce an odd mixture of the commonplace and the nostalgic, which are as stirring as an advertisement for granary bread or real ale.

Chaos in the opposition ranks disguises the Prime Minister's failings. There remains an electoral majority to keep Labour out of power, handing government to the Tories if they win about 40 per cent of the vote. But John Major cannot rely on Labour disarray. And he must face the danger that, without a grander vision, Tory supporters may lose faith and simply stay at home.