Not persecuted, John, but justifiably unloved

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As I Watched last Thursday's bad-tempered exchanges at Prime Minister's Questions, it occurred to me that Mr John Major was not quite as nice as everyone kept saying he was; in fact was not nice at all. Then I said to myself: well, we all, even the nicest of us, behave like that from time to time. We say wounding things, try to hurt people. And when do we do this? It is when we feel unloved or, at any rate, unappreciated.

Mr Major clearly feels this way. He is reminiscent of the man on the couch in the New Yorker cartoon to whom the psychiatrist is saying: "From what you tell me you haven't got a complex at all. You really are being persecuted." Persecution and lack of appreciation are, however, different notions. Persecution is by its very nature unjustified. Appreciation can by contrast be withheld for perfectly sound reasons. Mr Major evidently believes that with him the reasons are not sound, that the voters and the press - above all the press - have unjustly taken against him.

To begin with, there is the very fact of his longevity in office. It was Lord Jenkins who observed that, for a prime minister to acquire a high reputation, the first, the necessary condition was that he or she should have enjoyed a lengthy spell in No 10. By 1 May Mr Major will have been there for six years, six months. In continuous service he ranks with David Lloyd George, C R Attlee and Harold Macmillan and has been substantially outlasted by only Margaret Thatcher. H H Asquith was at No 10 for more than seven years. For the last six months, however, he was head of a coalition. The three periods of office of one of Mr Major's heroes, Stanley Baldwin, added up to seven years, four months.

Lord Owen once said in relation to his Social Democrats that posterity would be the judge; to which Sir Peter Tapsell remarked that posterity might well have better things to do with its time. Likewise, I fear, with Mr Major. No one can be sure about these judgements, but if posterity ever turns its attention to him it seems unlikely to rank him as highly as any of the other recent long-term tenants of No 10.

Certainly other prime ministers have gone unappreciated and been unloved: think, for instance, of Macmillan in 1961-63, Harold Wilson in 1967-70, Edward Heath in 1972-74 and Mrs Thatcher in 1980-82. But with Mr Major the period has been longer, five years, and the contempt - not so much the dislike as the contempt - has been greater.

Partly, the way in which Mr Major is regarded reflects nothing but credit on him. "He's not a leader, not like old Churchill or Maggie Thatcher": this is the sort of thing one hears about him, even though his immediate predecessor was not called "Maggie" by her nearest and dearest but solely by Mr Tony Blair's new friend, the Sun newspaper. Or, as the 19th century French sociologist Gustave le Bon put it: "Authoritiveness and intolerance are sentiments of which crowds have a very clear notion, which they easily conceive and which they entertain as readily as they put them into practice."

At the same time Mr Major has what we can only call a sneaky side to him. Public perceptions are often unjust, but they are seldom completely awry. The comings and goings over the date of the election provide as good an illustration as any. Certainly it is perfectly in order for a prime minister to tell the Sovereign that he intends shortly to request a dissolution: Baldwin so informed King George V in 1923. What is extraordinary is the length not of the official campaign but of the real campaign, which began a week ago with press conferences, photo-opportunities, television interviews (a more impressive performance by Mr Jeremy Paxman than by Mr Blair, I thought) and the rest of the paraphernalia to which we have become accustomed; except there is more of it this time.

I have no means of knowing whether Mr Major timed Friday's prorogation to forestall Sir Gordon Downey's report on corrupt or merely erring legislators. But that, with all respect to Mr Blair, Mr Paddy Ashdown and the Guardian, which deserves all credit for its boldness and diligence, is not the main point. This is that Mr Major, contrary to all recent precedents and to the spirit of the constitution, is inflicting on the public a campaign effectively lasting seven weeks. Seven weeks! It is what the Bill of Rights calls a cruel and unusual punishment.

He is imposing it because it provides one of his two chances of winning. He hopes that in this period Mr John Prescott, Mr Robin Cook or someone - it does not matter who - will put his foot in it. Or her foot, if it is Ms Clare Short, Ms Harriet Harman or Mrs Margaret Beckett. Mr Major believes his other chance lies in a televised debate with Mr Blair.

And yet, Mr Major could still have had his long campaign, which is dictated solely by his political concerns, without proroguing Parliament as precipitately as he did. In law, indeed, Parliament did not in these circumstances - in advance of a general election - have to be prorogued at all. It could have been adjourned, which would have given Sir Gordon the opportunity to complete and publish his report, though not for the Commons to debate it unless they had been recalled.

I will try to explain the terms that are used about these things. Parliament is adjourned on most weekdays and for the recesses. It still exists, and can be recalled for something like an outbreak of war, the invasion of the Falklands or what-have-you. It is prorogued at the end of a session, which begins with the Queen's Speech and the State Opening of Parliament, a traditional ceremony created for the benefit of the ancient Dimbleby family. After prorogation Parliament ceases to exist - comes to an end - until the new session begins. Thus last year, as in most parliamentary years, the old 1995-96 session continued after Parliament reassembled in late October, while the new 1996-97 session began with the Gracious Speech in early November.

However, Parliament is dissolved at the end of a parliament. The Parliament of 1992-97 will be dissolved on 8 April, but it was prorogued on 21 March, an interval of 18 days. The 1945-50 Parliament was dissolved on 3 February and prorogued on 20 January, 14 days before. That is the only recent comparable period. In 1970 and in 1992 Parliament was prorogued and dissolved on the same day. In October 1974, 1979, 1983 and 1987 it was not prorogued at all: dissolution followed a period of adjournment. The same course could have been pursued today. Why it was not pursued in 1992 I do not know, though the interval was of hours merely.

It has been suggested to me that in some quarters a dissolution which has not been preceded by prorogation is somehow felt to be disrespectful of Her Majesty. If that is indeed so - and such curious punctilio was absent from the whole 1974-87 period - the interval should clearly be of no more than a few hours, to enable the House to be recalled beforehand and persons such as Sir Gordon to complete their labours. As it is, he cannot do so. The conclusion is, I am afraid, that Mr Major is a slippery customer and it is not at all surprising if he is unloved.