Lonely and aloof in his fortified outpost

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A TACTICIAN is at work in Downing Street. There are unmistakable signs of a defensive operation to reinforce the Prime Minister's position this winter. Who is the New Machiavelli? Some louche, Jermyn Street-shirted PR man? A tortoise-faced old cynic from Central Office? I think the mind at work is probably John Major's. This is his bag. Tactics are what he's good at.

So how is he playing it? The office of Prime Minister depends on three main supports. First, there is the parliamentary majority. Second, there is public opinion, largely dealt with through journalism, but involving occasional direct electoral encounters. Third, there is the collective purposefulness and loyalty of Cabinet. Since he came close to being destroyed by the Maastricht rebellion, Mr Major has looked at each in turn.

In attempting to repair the weak parliamentary majority - on some issues, no majority - he has done the only two things he could. First, he has bought extra votes from the Ulster Unionists. The price has not been counted out in public but will be paid in the coin of intransigence, because that is all these people will accept. Second, he has tried to shore up the fractured Tory majority. He has done this by appealing directly to the Conservative conference. It responded with real enthusiasm and Tory rebels may have a harder time a result.

Mr Major's next problem, the storm of critical media coverage, with its resultant bad opinion polls and electoral reverses, is largely out of his hands. But to the extent that he can, he is changing tactics. Gus O'Donnell, his departing press officer, is an excellent civil servant, whose openness and decency reflected that of his master. But Mr Major is found by colleagues to be too informal with journalists.

The journalists are flattered but take his openness as a sign of weakness. Therefore, however sad it might be, he has been told that he needs to adopt a much more aloof style. I read the appointment of Christopher Meyer, the Washington-based official, as a harbinger of that change. I suspect that journalists will find the Prime Minister chillier and more withdrawn in future. For the time being, the man, who has played so much on his personal charm, will recede into the remaining dignity of his office.

Certainly, the biggest casualty of his matiness was the leak of his 'bastards' complaint about Michael Howard, Michael Portillo and Peter Lilley. (He seems to have gone around assuring everyone involved that he didn't mean them. But until he says who he did mean - The Downing Street Years, 1990- 199? - we assume the obvious.)

In retrospect, this appears an even more damaging indiscretion than it seemed in the over-heated mood of the late summer. Not because Mr Major was saying anything surprising (his impatience with the anti-Community Tories was well-known), but because it undermined his authority in Cabinet. Mr Major's words were a howl of frustration, not a bark of authority.

Once those words were so barely and irrefutably exposed in public, the dissidents could do no wrong. They were, it seemed, more sinned against than sinning. Nothing they said, on policy or the future of Conservatism, would seem half as disloyal as Mr Major's words about them. At the same time, he revealed that they had become unsackable because of their loyal and dangerous Thatcherite following. So paradoxically, by being attacked, they had gained a new freedom which they will lose no chance to exploit. It was this freedom, rather than concrete right-wing policy advances, that Thatcherites celebrated as the Tory conference ended.

Mr Major's response to their power has been a calculated move towards them. Each sentence, on Europe and everything else, has been carefully weighed. A nudge to the right, a wink for the Europhobes. He was ever a good balancer. And for the time being, it will be enough. Lady Thatcher, having come close to finally discrediting herself with the party faithful, is keen for a tactical reconciliation; and the right wing would prefer to wait for Michael Portillo rather than act as assassins on behalf of Kenneth Clarke.

True Thatcherites will never trust Mr Major. Insultingly, they give the impression (as does she) that the first grey hair on Mr Portillo's scalp will signal the Prime Minister's removal. He is cast as the stop-gap while the revolution replenishes itself. The fight for the soul of the party can be pursued without irritating interventions from Downing Street, either in terms of ideology, or through sackings or demotions. In return, the Prime Minister - the Prime Minister - receives their tolerance. So ministers have started talking down the effect on Mr Major's position of bad results in next year's European and local elections - these are not 'real elections', merely large-scale vehicles for protest. So long as he seems useful, the Thatcherites will protect him.

But theirs is the solicitude of kidnappers, not of worried friends. No doubt the Prime Minister plans to break free and re-establish his position with a wide-ranging reshuffle next summer. But hostages are prey to all sorts of delusions. Some eventually escape, become national heroes and write books. Others don't.

At any rate, Mr Major has been extremely busy, and to some effect: doors have been nailed up, ramparts raised, moats dug. Whether in captivity or not, he is more secure. But to what end? His parliamentary position depends on maverick MPs and Ulster Unionists. His friends counsel him to be more aloof. His enemies regard him as a neutral figurehead beneath whose passive gaze the real arguments can conveniently be waged. For Mr Major as well as for the rest of us, it is an intolerable prospect. None of us need newly-published memoirs to recall there is more to the trade than this.