Major is the best bastard the Tories have got : Political Commentary

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SINCE 1945, it is only Labour governments that have thrown in the towel. C R Attlee went to the country in 1951 when the parliament had run 18 months and Labour had a majority of five over all other parties. He lost, and inaugurated 13 years of Conservative administrations. James Callaghan held the 1979 election in very different circumstances. He lost a vote of censure over Scottish devolution. But he would have been constitutionally in order to call for a vote of confidence next day, which he would probably have won. Lord Callaghan, however, was fed up and worn out, as were many of his colleagues; though with less reason than the ministers of 1951, who had suffered not only worse health but years in the wartime coalition.

Last week there were stories that Mr John Major's government had likewise lost the will to live. This was something which the Macmillan government of 1959-63 did not do. Still less did the Home administration that succeeded it. Indeed, Lord Home nearly won the 1964 election. Every real politician knows that the Conservatives would stand a better chance of winning this one with Mr Michael Heseltine or Mr Kenneth Clarke as leader.

The electorate is, we are told, increasingly hostile to Europe. Mr Heseltine and Mr Clarke are two of the Cabinet's three leading Europhiles. But that would make no odds to the voters. What they want is a change from Mr Major. Virtually anybody would do, apart from Mr Michael Portillo or Mrs Virginia Bottomley. Mr Douglas Hurd, the third Europhile, would certainly do. After all, people used to vote for the Liberal Party because they supported Mr Enoch Powell's views on immigration. They would vote for a Conservative who was not Mr Major irrespective of his views on Europe.

This simple truth carries little conviction with Conservative backbenchers. This is not because they are overburdened with clear views of their own, on Europe or anything else. It is partly because they accept the erroneous equation that an electorate which is hostile to Europe (and whether it is so is by no means self-evident) will vote for a leader with the same or, in Mr Major's case, neutral opinions. It is mainly because they are terrified of the row which the Europhobes could make - and which they have already shown they can make.

Mr Major's position is hardly being imperilled by the Europhobes. On the contrary: it is they who are keeping him where he is. He may not be a complete bastard, but he is the best bastard they have got. With Mr Michael Howard liable to frighten the children, Mr Peter Lilley a man from Mars, Mr John Redwood a creature from some more remote planet still, Mr Portillo a Spanish assassin, and Mr Jonathan Aitken a mid-Atlantic smoothie, they have to stick to Mr Major. Maybe that is why the Government has lost the will to live. There is nothing but hopelessness and muddle ahead.

In this spirit, that of observers of the passing scene, let us have a look at the week's two rows. The first was about immigration from Europe. Here we should note a shift in the terms of political trade.The second was a further instalment of the great Eurocurrency serial.

On the single currency it is allowable - even, up to a point, expected - when Mr Tony Blair taunts Mr Major and the people behind him look

underdone and harassed,

And out of place and mean,

And horribly embarrassed.

Incidentally, Miss Susan Hume of BBC Radio 4's Yesterday in Parliament was wrong when she informed her listeners that Mr Major looked pleased when the Conservative Mr Michael Brown said that, while Mr Blair would introduce a single currency, the Prime Minister would not. Mr Major looked embarrassed too; as well he might, for this is the declaration which he has been careful not to make. If he did, he might win the affections of two-thirds of his party but lose a third of his Cabinet, and the most senior third at that.

The loss of Mr Clarke, at least, would probably cause a run on sterling. The relationship between him and Mr Major can now best be described as one of armed neutrality on both sides. Mr Major, by securing Mr Clarke's agreement to the prime ministerial reply to Mr Gordon Brown, has forced him to admit that our entry into a single currency is a constitutional matter. So indeed it is. But Mr Clarke, for his part, has not unsaid his words that our entry would not mean the end of the nation state. Why should he? The positions are not inconsistent. For the abolition of the Monarchy would be a constitutional matter, but it would not mean the end of the British state.

On immigration from Europe, by contrast, unity has broken out like the flowers that bloom in the spring. It is not just that Europhile has been lying down with Europhobe. The Labour Party has also got in on the act, through Mr Jack Straw. Mrs Pauline Green, the leader of the Socialist (dread word! as my colleague Mr Wallace Arnold would say) Group in the European Parliament, takes a different view. So does the new Commissioner, Mr Neil Kinnock. One of the low papers has tried to build this up into a "Labour split".

So, in a sense, it is; even though Mrs Green has her own audience, while Mr Kinnock is now a full-time servant of the Commission, without party or national obligations. The truth is that Mr Straw and Mr Blair are terrified of being thought soft on immigration. The prospect of our being invaded by hordes of garlic-chewing, Gauloises-infested, red wine-bibbing, drug- dealing, social security-swindling ruffians does not alarm them at all. What they are frightened of is that people will think that Labour is indifferent to such an invasion. As a consequence, people will not vote Labour.

The reasoning of the Conservative Europhiles is similar. It has nothing to do with the possible imperilment of our supposedly good record in race relations over recent years, which was what the Prime Minister implausibly claimed on Tuesday. It has everything to do with the fear of losing votes. It is all rather disgusting.

This accounts for the virulence of ministerial responses to the resignation of the estimable Mr Charles Wardle. Why, the fellow was not even still at the Home Office, where he had been as a junior minister. He was simply being a Meddlesome Mattie. There had been nothing like it - though ministers did not draw this parallel - since the late Ian Gow resigned as Minister of Housing in 1985 in protest against the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

To make matters worse, Mr Wardle was and is right. As Lady Thatcher wrote in her memoirs of the immigration agreement which she negotiated at Luxembourg in December 1985, before the passing of the Single European Act 1986: "Neither the Commission, nor the Council nor the European Court would in the long run be prepared to uphold what had been agreed in this statement any more than they would honour the limits on majority voting set out in the treaty itself." Mr Kenneth Baker wrote to the same effect in his own memoirs. As Aneurin Bevan once said, why read the crystal when you can read the book?