Not lucky, just good

PROFILE: John Major; The Prime Minister is Britain's own comeback kid.
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The Independent Online
John Major's tough stance on the beef crisis brings him back to centre-stage in the nation's political drama, but it also reminds the onlooking electorate how little it knows or understands him. The media, and through it the country, knew much more about his predecessors. Harold Wilson had his well-advertised interests, holidays, friends. Even Edward Heath, with his stoical face to the world, revealed himself through his music and sailing. And Margaret Thatcher evoked powerful personal responses from everyone; even if people did not know who she was, they thought they did. They knew where she stood, and that was what mattered.

But Major? What associations does he produce in the popular mind - warm beer and village greens? He does not care particularly for either. Someone rather overwhelmed by it all who is not really on top of his job? Not true. A pleasant, decent sort of chap, but not very effective? This at least gets closer to the mark, though the latter judgement is open to debate.

Major is certainly a private man; few of his ministers would say they know him well. His family, too, has escaped the attention granted to the Thatchers and the Blairs, the Reagans and Clintons. Little is known of his relationship with them beyond the fact that he is happiest when with them in his Huntingdon home, behind closed doors.

He has become, moreover, an increasingly private figure throughout his premiership, as he has retreated into himself under unprecedentedly bitter assault from sections of the press and from his own party. We hear less of his true enthusiasms - cricket, for example - or even his dreams of building the classless society, where there is opportunity to rise for everyone, whatever their social class, gender or racial background. Whatever happened to Major's dream of building a Britain at ease with itself, and his especial concern for the disadvantaged?

A common view is that Major has been a lucky Prime Minister, lucky to have won three elections against initial starting odds - the party leadership in November 1990 against Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd, a general election in April 1992 in the midst of a recession, and leadership again in the summer of 1995, after his credibility and morale had been pounded for two years as badly as the Iraqi military emplacements in Kuwait.

He is seen as lucky - even now, with beef - to have finessed a response to the EU that might just result in double victory: resolution of the problem and restoration of government standing. There is something in this critique. There are certainly elements of Major as the "JR Premier", who, like JR Ewing in Dallas, keeps making comebacks no matter how often he is struck down. But to see him as a conspicuously lucky Prime Minister is to misjudge him, and further contributes to the fog that surrounds a proper understanding of his premiership.

First, it assumes that he is a poor leader blessed by periodic good luck, rather than a good leader dogged by bad luck. And he has been unlucky in so many ways. Unlike Mrs Thatcher, he had no time to prepare for being Prime Minister, or think through his party-leader election agenda of opportunity and education. One day he was Chancellor, grappling with interest rate cuts, the next Prime Minister, with a war in the Gulf to fight. He was unlucky not to find a pivotal figure who could do the detailed thinking for him and translate his valid but essentially inchoate beliefs - and he holds them strongly - into a programme of legislation and policy that would have formed a distinctive Majorite agenda and avoided his premiership being seen as a mere coda to Thatcherism. He has been unlucky to have had to ride out the Thatcher-Lawson recession, and the biggest schism in the party for 70 years - over Europe. Unlucky, too, in many other ways: to have come to office after the party had been in power continually for 11 years, with all the tensions that longevity produces, not to mention boredom; to have the lowest initial Tory majority for 40 years and see it dwindle to the point where tacking became a strategy rather than an occasional tactic; to face the most hostile Tory press of any Conservative leader in history; and to have a lost leader, with a seeping wound, making destabilising noises.

But Major's "lucky" tag is inadequate for a second reason - it underestimates Major the man. He is in truth different from the public perception of him. For one, there is his powerful ambition and stubbornness; he possesses more of both than almost anyone at the top of politics today. He has exceptional stamina and courage, both physical and mental. Crises and threats to his life are faced with a calm resolve that produces deep respect in those who work with him. He is rated far more highly by international leaders, and by senior officials in London, than the public realises. His interpersonal and diplomatic skills are world class.

Bring the driven ego together with the misfortunes that have beset his government and you have the Major dilemma. Even though he professes to have little self-knowledge, he must know deep down that he has been knocked powerfully and repeatedly off-course from accomplishing much of what he came into politics to achieve. The countless misfortunes and crises have hit him where he is most vulnerable - his security. More than most, he thrives on and needs success. In stark contrast to the sparkling extroversion and self-confidence that were evident in the Eighties and early Nineties, the reversals and criticisms since 1992 have closed him down and pushed him into bouts of introversion, short temper and isolation from which he will suddenly burst out. But the reversals have made him even more determined to hold on to power and hope against hope, that the wheel will turn.

Going over the top on beef may prove to be the successful 1918 summer counter-offensive rather than the battle of the Somme. Meanwhile, he has this overwhelming sense of confidence that he will win the next general election. Only a fool would write off that possibility.

The writer's biography of John Major will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in June 1997.