Major and the smack of limp leadership

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ACCORDING to her memoirs, poor old Her. And according to her successor, poor old Him. It must be horrible being Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. You're surrounded by treacherous incompetents. No one loves you. No flattery, no thanks, no curtsies, no hat-doffing. Just gripe, gripe, gripe. And, after all, you never asked for the job, did you?

Of course you did. You fought for it with nails, teeth and everything. Then, having won, you knew that the happiness of millions can depend on your qualities and decisions. Is it really necessary to ask for their sympathy as well?

But there are no mirrors in Number 10, it seems: a lack of proportion and self-knowledge go with the job. So nothing quite compares with Baroness Thatcher's attempt to blame everyone else for her failures - except, worryingly, John Major's readiness to blame assorted smaller players for what happens to him. When he thinks no one's listening, he seeks sympathy from TV reporters about the terrible behaviour of Thatcherite 'bastards'. When he's in front of those bastards, at the party conference, he seeks sympathy about the terrible conduct of the journalists.

He badly needs to listen less to both. Even cabinet-level ideologues rank below a Prime Minister who, as last week showed, can rely on the reflex but determined loyalty of his party workers. He is as strong as he has been since the election and, after Blackpool, he has the chance to break free of the impertinent demands of backbench MPs.

As for media commentators, they (we) are small, chirruping things compared with Prime Ministers. In his speech last week, Mr Major came close to complaining about the fact as well as the content of hostile articles about his Bosnian policy. He was the one who had to decide. It was all very well for the commentators on the sidelines, but didn't they understand the responsibility . . . Queen's First Minister . . . Well, of course. Did this need spelling out? The barbs of journalists are only poisonous when political leaders allow them to fester.

Over-sensitivity to criticism, a trait Mr Major's colleagues still find strongly in him, is a political flaw, not merely an endearing quirk. It suggests a mind not willing to offend. And that's a problem because politics at the top requires hard, and sometimes offensive, choices. Look over your shoulder and you'll find yourself doubled up on the ground. Catch the spectators' eyes and you've had it.

All this applies particularly to modern Conservative politics. The Tory party is still the most interesting, lively political organisation in Britain - not an excessive compliment. There is a real and important argument going on about the role of the state, and the competence of the nation. Neither is a small matter. If one wing of the party won control, we could see Britain undergoing a second radical-right revolution at home, while retreating from European politics. Politicians such as Douglas Hurd, Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke, Michael Howard, Michael Portillo and Peter Lilley are locking horns, and the sound of their combat grows ever louder.

This is not a matter of imminent Commons votes. This is about philosophy, not party discipline: the gaps between a Lilley-Portillo Britain and a Hurd-Clarke Britain are almost as great as between a Tory Britain and a Labour one.

Yet one voice is missing. At Blackpool, the Prime Minister preferred not to take sides. The future of the welfare state? Fixed exchange rates? After such a fervent week, there was barely a word. Europe, generally? He had some commonsensical things to say about the dangers of federalism, though neither I nor anyone else I talk to seems to know the real extent of his modish Euro-scepticism. But did he disapprove of the way Mr Lilley's speech whipped up nationalistic outrage about European scroungers? Or did he go back to his hotel suite and hoot with laughter? I used to think the answer was obvious.

Similarly, what of the Portillo project? The gap between those who thought the Thatcherite revolution stopped half way and those who think it went too far is a rather important one. It affects every one of us. But here again, there was frustratingly little indication of how Mr Major's thinking is developing. As between the lions and Christians, the Prime Minister declared himself impartial. Both had their legitimate viewpoints: brotherly love was one thing, but then there was something to be said too for a warm and tasty ankle bone.

His retreat to the stand section of the Circus Maximus, to elevated remarks about which all Tories agree, was a strategy which worked extremely well for him last week. But it will not work in the longer term. Prime Ministers should have strong views on the big political arguments and express them strongly: Britain cannot be led from the Department of Social Security or the Treasury Chief Secretary's rooms. As it is, Mr Major risks being drowned out by his cabinet colleagues.

This may be an old lament with no conclusion, a problem which will never be resolved. As Mr Major continues in power, he has been saying less about the big questions, not more. He was sharper about Britain's place in Europe and about the general ethos of post-Thatcher Toryism during the party leadership than he was last week.

It was perhaps necessary then, at least for his own position. The party is less frenetic than it was. But to keep it that way, to keep the ideological arguments just a little distance from a personal knife-fight for the top job, the party desperately needs a clearer lead. Otherwise, the Tory controversialists and pamphleteers will once again take over, returning soon and with excessive relish to their battle for the soul of the party. Then, as in the final years of the Lady, the Conservatives would find themselves rather too interesting for their own good.