Letter: Major: panic of a weak man

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Sir: The desperate act of a desperate man. This, rather than the strongman thesis, is the best explanation of Major's resignation. A weak man has panicked. Strong leaders lead by an implicit bond of trust between themselves and their party. Weak leaders constantly try to reassert their authority by imposing loyalty tests on their party.

This approach, once beloved of Neil Kinnock in leading Labour, has become Major's favourite tactic. Each time he has used it, most notably over Maastricht and the European Finance Bill, has been an admission of his failure to convince by rational argument, and the need to appeal to the Tories' supposed primeval instinct of loyalty to their leader. Now he is resorting to the same tactic, in the most dramatic way possible, to secure his own position and give himself the authority he needs for next month's Cabinet reshuffle.

This is both a regrettable and a fallible strategy. It is regrettable because, like all appeals for loyalty to a leader, it reduces political debate to questions of personal confidence. The root of the dissension, which Major finds so debilitating, is the legitimate, and extremely important, dual debate about the future direction of post-Thatcherite Conservatism and Britain's place in Europe. Mr Major hopes to foreshorten both debates by reducing them to a vote of confidence in his leadership, thus allowing the Tories to continue to govern behind a facade of unity. If this occurs, important decisions will go by default and, not for the first time, appeals for loyalty to a leader will have the pernicious effect of stifling political debate.

The strategy, however, is fallible. None of the alternative scenarios, either a risible challenge from a Gorman or a Lamont, or no challenge at all, will resolve the fundamental choices facing the Conservative Party. Even if all goes as Major intends, the divisions in the party will be subsumed rather than resolved. The questioning of Major's leadership is only the symptom, not the cause, of Conservative malaise. His authority would only be restored within the Conservative Party, not in the country as a whole. Unless, or until, it develops into a Hestletine/Portillo contest, the election is nothing more than a diverting side-show. It has been triggered, not by a strong man, but by the desperation of a ringmaster vying to control the errant activities of his tired and bedraggled circus troupe.

Yours faithfully,


London, SE26

23 June

From Mr T. A. A. Finch

Sir: Can a boil be lanced by a stalking horse who has picked up a gauntlet?

Yours etc,


London, SW11

23 June