Leading Article: Mr Major retreats from view

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AS PARLIAMENT resumes and he pops up again - quite perkily - at Question Time, John Major is seen to have pulled off a remarkable feat. In the three years since he became Prime Minister he has succeeded in making it less rather than more clear what he stands for. Not that a high degree of clarity prevailed when he succeeded Margaret Thatcher in November 1990; but a generally reassuring picture emerged of a more or less coherent approach.

In contrast to Margaret Thatcher, he was keen that Britain should be 'at the heart of Europe'. On the economy, he seemed to favour growth and employment. On social policy, he seemed a natural liberal; decent, humane and genuinely anxious to improve health and welfare services provision. Since those early days, the picture has been progressively blurred. If, in computer parlance, what you see is what you get (Wysiwyg), what on earth are we getting?

On Europe, Mr Major has put party unity way before any convictions he might conceivably have had. First, he crowed excessively about the opt-outs he secured from the Maastricht treaty. Then he failed to squelch the Eurosceptics, even if eventually putting his credibility on the line to save the treaty. At the Conservative Party conference he listened happily to Peter Lilley's xenophobic assault on alleged EC abusers of Britain's welfare services.

It is, in short, impossible to know - despite his recent article in the Economist - whether he has any real feeling about Europe's future, beyond a dislike of centralisation in Brussels and a commendable desire for the EC to embrace the newly democratic countries of eastern and central Europe as soon as practicable.

As for social policy, was it political opportunism or conviction that made him side so swiftly with Michael Howard, against the judicial establishment, on the effectiveness of imprisonment in containing crime? On the economy, he was prepared to preside over a long and bruising recession without taking tough decisions that might have shortened it. His opinions on the merits of further spending cuts vs tax increases remain unknown.

If the original view of what Mr Major represented was roughly accurate, its subsequent obfuscation as he has been pushed to the right by events and the Thatcherite tendency is damaging. The Tories are divided over defence. A potentially mighty row looms over the Budget, notably over its provisions to soften the impact of VAT on fuel. Whichever way he jumps on this, the real Mr Major is likely to remain as elusive as ever.