Leading Article: With friends like these . . .

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TO BE positive: Britain is now functioning admirably as a democracy. Governments with large parliamentary majorities tend to become arrogant. The Thatcher era, in which the Conservatives had majorities of 43, 144 and 102, proved the point: even a monstrous piece of legislation such as the poll tax could be pushed through, in the certainty that it would be rubber-stamped by a comfortable majority of MPs. It was an era that exposed the shortcomings of traditional two-party politics. One effect was to increase pressure for the introduction of proportional representation: in coalition governments, the junior coalition partner (or partners) can act as a brake on wilder flights of ideology.

Three factors have contributed to the new situation, in which the Government is obliged to be much more sensitive to public opinion. First and foremost, the Government has a majority of only 21; second, it suffers from weak leadership; third, the official Opposition has been enfeebled by its fourth consecutive defeat and by the evaporation in the post-Communist world of many old ideological differences between it and the Conservatives.

All governments with small majorities are obliged to bow periodically to the power of backbench MPs who may vote against them. None more so than a government that seems not to know its own mind and which, through bad luck and/or bad management, fails to resolve issues that bring out latent differences of opinion within the party. Margaret Thatcher was able to eliminate or marginalise most of those who did not share her views on economic management: the so-called wets. But on Europe (and with the poll tax an aggravating factor), even her large majorities could not save her from being overthrown. The biggest split in the party under John Major has been over the Maastricht treaty. The party's dissident Europhobes now feel vindicated by the collapse of his anti-inflationary strategy of keeping the pound within the European exchange rate mechanism. The ineptitude with which the mine closures were handled created a fresh, though partially overlapping, set of critics and dissenters.

To their views the Prime Minister has this week been obliged to bow: not because they have been advanced with notable cogency or consistently pure motives but because they reflect public opinion. That is, after all, one of MPs' chief tasks, though one they are not often so well placed to fulfil.

In the present instance, Tory backbenchers have been helped by the manner in which the media have, without their usual quota of political partisanship, concentrated on the essential issues, both human and economic. With rare unanimity, the nation has risen up against the seemingly cavalier, heartless and undemocratic manner in which the future of respected working communities and of a national asset was consigned to the scrapheap.

The marginal role played by the Labour Party in the debate might seem to suggest that Britain is moving closer to a one-party democracy. In such countries, opposition comes more from various factions within the governing party than from the putative opposition. Japan and Italy are cases in point. And in Germany, Chancellor Kohl's main threats come from within his own party, and from the rise of the far right.

Here, the old patterns will probably re- emerge nearer to the next election. For the moment, Labour seems content to bide its time as the Government falters from crisis to crisis, its difficulties exacerbated by its divisions. The chief danger for Labour is that the Conservative Party's internal strife should make any other opposition look redundant.