Looking after the little things: Tug at his heart strings and John Major becomes Superman, says Annika Savill

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The Independent Online
IT IS people like Irma who turn John Major into Superman. The plight of individuals in need of specific assistance is particularly appealing to him, for a prime minister can come to their rescue by picking up a pen or a telephone.

'It's especially these consular-type cases that send him into the telephone booth to change into his blue tights and superman T-shirt,' said a government source. 'Before Irma, there was a Briton in trouble in India, another one in Egypt, and of course the two girls in Thailand.' Mr Major helped secure the release of the two teenagers jailed on drug offences in Bangkok by writing personally to the Thai King.

On Sunday, it was the Downing Street duty press officer, acting on behalf of John Major, who was the first person to contact the Foreign Office about the case of Irma Hadzimuratovic. It had been a particularly harrowing weekend for television viewers, who were treated to relentless footage of the five-year-old suffering unspeakable torment in her Sarajevo hospital bed. One American journalist opened his piece: 'Irma Hadzimuratovic's shoulder is the colour of milk.'

By Sunday morning, the Prime Minister had had enough. He telephoned his office from Great Stukeley after hearing the latest on the radio. The duty press officer eventually got through to the Foreign Office news department. Had the case been accurately reported? What were the procedures for cutting through the red tape to help her? The Downing Street press officer conveyed the information back to Mr Major, who decided to act. By Monday, the formalities that involve four government departments and normally require days or even weeks of meetings to complete were taken care of over the telephone in one morning.

All the while, every tabloid in Britain had been telephoning the Foreign Office news department hourly, demanding to know when something would be done to help Irma. 'There is absolutely nothing wrong with being moved by the media in general,' said one government source. 'But it was particularly important not to be seen to be moved by the Sun. The answer was to tell them all along we were already exploring ways of helping.'

It was back in the spring of last year that John Major formed a personal and deep conviction that he was not going to endanger the lives of British troops by staging a military intervention in Bosnia. It was a decision arrived at largely intuitively, based on what he and his advisers guessed public opinion could tolerate in the long term. In mid-May 1992, a senior diplomat asked me - I thought this was taking market research on such grave matters a bit frivolously - whether I thought 'public opinion would accept British soldiers being killed in a relatively obscure place like Yugoslavia?'.

By July the same year, the same diplomat was able to say: 'John Major is personally convinced that public support could not be sustained for sending troops to die in Bosnia.' By then it had also become clear that nobody else was going to send any troops either - in particular the most vocal among the do-something brigade, the US, which to this day does not have a single UN peace-keeper on the ground in Bosnia. But also by then, public opinion was beginning to bite in earnest and was causing diplomats to lapse into undiplomatic language. The then Canadian foreign minister, one senior diplomat told me, was 'an old cow for complaining that other Western countries aren't doing enough to help. She should realise it's done wonders for her government's public image to have all those Canadian peace-keepers in Bosnia'.

The problem with trying to impress public opinion is that it is not much of a war aim to give your military commanders on the ground. Mr Major has been aware of that all along, and if he was not, his military advisers would have told him. Fourteen months ago on these pages I quoted a military analyst close to the Government, who said: 'Let us say that the aim of an intervention is to lift the siege of Sarajevo; 'allied troops' go in to achieve this; an allied convoy is fired upon; troops are sent to relieve the convoy; then Dubrovnik is again bombarded from the sea; a Serbian enclave in Croatia is attacked, while Kosovo goes up in flames. What remains of your original aim then?'

Ironically, Mr Major's series of 'Operation Irmas' began with a plan involving not one individual but several million: the safe havens in Iraqi Kurdistan after the Gulf war in 1991. That decision, too, was taken over a weekend. Senior Foreign Office officials had to be hauled back from country retreats to formulate the plan, which was then tabled without warning at an EC council in Luxembourg the following Monday.

But then, not only did 'Operation Provide Comfort' in northern Iraq involve a clear victim who needed protection from a clear villain. It also did not run contrary to existing British interests, but rather furthered them: Mr Major's government had anyway been concerned that the allied ceasefire against Saddam Hussein was declared prematurely. As it happens, it was US military planners such as Colin Powell - instrumental in not sending US troops to peace-keeping operations in the former Yugoslavia - who insisted on the early withdrawal of troops after the Gulf war.

Another irony is that it is Douglas Hurd, rather than John Major, who has borne the brunt of public outrage over non-intervention in the former Yugoslavia, who has had to live with epithets such as 'the butcher of Bosnia'. He has had to defend a policy based on the personal convictions of his Prime Minister. Nowadays, the Foreign Secretary will usually decline television interviews requested on the subject of Bosnia alone; the way to get him is to choose another topic and tack on a few Bosnian questions at the end.

'We're actually a very belligerent nation,' said a former Foreign Office under- secretary on the subject of military intervention in Bosnia. 'But we only fight battles we can win.' The Gulf was one such battle, Irma another. Should Irma die, the operation will still have been a success in some way, because John Major announced yesterday that 20 more Bosnian victims were being flown to Britain. When the battle is not winnable, John Major remains Clark Kent.

(Photograph omitted)