Major can escape the stagnant, poisonous pools

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The Independent Online
SOME shrewd and cautious Conservatives now think John Major is not up to being Prime Minister. We are not talking about snobby journalists or embittered Thatcher-fetishists, though they started it, but about moderate, normally torpid parliamentarians. We are talking not about press hysteria, but about an ominous shift in opinion in the private places of Parliament, where MPs meet and gossip.

The Commons lobbies, though, are not cool oases of wisdom and prescience. Mostly, they are hot, poisonous and stagnant pools. And it may be that the crisis has peaked - that just as the campaign against Mr Major's leadership gets serious, he is breaking free.

It is too early to be sure. But here is the case for believing that Mr Major is starting to get a grip on the party. First, despite a Cabinet split, he seems to be going for a substantive, that is provocative, motion when the Commons debates Maastricht next week. This is an absolutely central decision for him. His only hope is to demand loyalty and dare the party to destroy him.

A substantive motion is daring: there is a risk that the Tory middle ground has become so fed up with Mr Major's leadership that it will allow the rebels to destroy him. But for him to walk away from this battle would send an unmistakable signal to the party and the wider world that the Prime Minister was no longer in charge - that real power had shifted to assorted backbench knights. Such people may be clever and brave, but they are not fit repositories for real power (which is mostly why they are backbench knights). So the Home Secretary would be telephoned by his friends and would listen in thoughtful silence. Et cetera. Mr Major's premiership might die suddenly or slowly, but it would be over.

Re-establishing authority now is essential to him, therefore, however risky it seems. But how risky will it really be? The Danes appear to have come to the rescue at just the right time. Clear evidence about how that country intends to resolve its debate on Maastricht means that a central argument for delaying the Commons Bill has disappeared. This has already caused problems for Labour: Shadow Cabinet members are privately uneasy about trying to block the Bill now. And it causes problems for Tory waverers intent on playing the Danish defence on the political chessboard: last night some of them were returning to Mr Major.

So, although next week's debate may yet turn out to be dramatic, ending with the Prime Minister having his policies publicly snipped off, it is beginning to look more likely that the Commons will, instead, put on its much-loved farce, Denouement Postponed - or, a Shambles in the Lobbies. This has, devotees of bad plays will recall, a likeable but ill-starred hero - and a dull ending.

Third, our hero has realised that he needs to act with much more flair and enthusiasm to keep the leading role. His private soliloquies in front of groups of Tory backbenchers have been, by all accounts, both moving and effective. But there have not been enough of them. There is a widespread feeling that Mr Major, once the most matey of leaders, has become a remote man - overprotected by Downing Street and the whips' office and apparently uninterested in the feelings of worried backbenchers. Comparisons are regularly made with Sir Edward Heath, whose cold shoulders were legendary well before they acquired their famous chips.

Since Mr Major and his friends believe he has been the victim of a campaign of character assassination by Thatcherites, his reluctance to expose his inner thoughts during chats with supercilious and puffed-up backbenchers is wholly understandable. But personal charm has always been his deadliest weapon and he needs to deploy it more vigorously. Finally, he is starting to.

The last piece of evidence for a Major comeback is his parliamentary performance. Though it has never been sparkling, he has clearly won the last three Question Time clashes with Mr Smith. He has even roused his own benches to cheers and gleeful anti-Labour abuse. This might seem unimportant. But in the parliamentary system, its psychological impact cannot be overestimated. The party that bays together, stays together.

Put all that together - and you are still quite a few red boxes short of a successful Prime Minister or a healthy-looking administration. A dozen or so Tories are now so bitter and derisive about Mr Major that their status as whipped supporters of his government must be doubted. Others will reluctantly lend him their votes on Maastricht, but will expect something in return - when the council tax is debated, perhaps, or when public-spending cuts are at issue. So if he scrapes a majority for Maastricht, he may find he cannot get through other important but controversial parts of his programme.

The spectacle of the Government limping on slowly through the winter will be unpleasant and depressing, but it is the best that Mr Major can now hope for. Night after night, there will be tight votes, and perhaps defeats. After that, who knows? Politicians are ridiculously resilient, most of them, and if Mr Major hangs on until the first signs of economic recovery, everything will look different - him too. But political recovery can only start from the top, with the reassertion of Mr Major's own credibility and authority. And that, quite clearly, cannot wait until next year.