Notebook: Only those with thick skins need apply: If John Major is suffering from prime ministerial stress he can console himself that he is not the first

Click to follow
The Independent Online
UNDER attack for succumbing to stress, John Major might turn to his favourite author for guidance. 'One wants in a Prime Minister a good many things, but not very great things,' wrote Anthony Trollope. 'He should be clever yet not be a genius; he should be conscientious but by no means strait- laced; he should be cautious but never timid, bold but never venturesome; he should have a good digestion, genial manners, and, above all, a thick skin.'

The Prime Minister was challenged on at least two of these prerequisites last week: his digestion and his derma. According to an article in the Times, the strain of cumulative woes had altered Mr Major's eating habits, with consequent weight-loss, while his sensitivity to backbench onslaught had made him a virtual hermit with a dying career and dyed hair.

Is there truth in any of this? And if there is, is he worse off than his stressed predecessors? For a start, I phoned the Prime Minister's brother, Terry Major-Ball. He saw Mr Major a fortnight ago and found him 'chirpy as ever after an 18-hour day. It's me who's got no energy, not the Prime Minister,' said Mr Major-Ball, who is unemployed. 'Dyeing his hair is the last thing I can imagine him doing (his barber denied it anyway). And out of all the pictures taken, of course there's bound to be one of him frowning. But he might be frowning because he's seen one of his best friends on the front bench picking his nose.'

Mr Major-Ball is discreet ('You get used to keeping your lip buttoned'), but insists the Prime Minister has no time to be lonely. 'If Norma were at Downing Street every minute of the day, the amount of time John would have available to see her would be very, very minimal, because of his workload. But she's only a couple of hours down the motorway any time she's needed.

'I have never known John to be stressed out. Everyone must have times when they say 'Sod it] What am I doing this for?' And although there have been times when I've seen John just a little fed up, I don't think it lasts too long. It has happened to other prime ministers before.'

It has indeed. Disraeli is remembered for his gaudy performances, vanity and conceit. Yet stress did surface. 'I noticed,' recalled a Commons opponent, 'that whenever I became in any way disagreeable - in short, whenever my words really bit - they were invariably followed by one movement. Sitting as he always did with his right knee over his left, whenever the words touched him he moved the pendant leg twice or three times, then curved his foot upwards.' A dead giveaway compared with Gladstone's stress symptoms, which the demonic old man would take with him to the brothel.

It would be surprising if the responsibilities, betrayals and humiliations of office left any of Downing Street's occupants untouched. When Asquith died, colleagues wrote about his 'impersonal' attitude, his 'detachment'. They didn't say that he countered the strains of office by writing love letters to women with whom he was infatuated. Between 1912 and spring 1915, he wrote to Venetia Stanley three times a day, often during crisis cabinet meetings. Peter Clarke, professor of modern British history at Cambridge, believes this emotional intensity 'was related to the political crisis, a spillover from one to the other'. In the end, Miss Stanley broke it off and became engaged to a member of Asquith's Cabinet, leaving him stressed beyond measure in the middle of the First World War.

Mr Major may be less sensitive to disappointment than was Asquith. Both are credited with enduring humiliations in silence. But in Asquith's case, successive crises led to the reconstruction of his government. In Mr Major's, only time will tell. Wednesday's Commons debate showed him laughing immoderately (maniacally?) when Robin Cook tweaked Michael Heseltine into a tantrum. But mannerisms are susceptible to misinterpretation. Hugo Young, author of One Of Us, the acclaimed biography of Margaret Thatcher, says he was 'leery' of psychoanalysing her. 'I wrote quite a lot about her being a woman and her relationships with male colleagues, and some episodes of tension, when she threatened to resign and when she thought she might be put out. Denis reputedly used to be worried about the pressure she was under and suggested she quit when all these people were being nasty to her, but I don't know of any period when there was any sign of her saying to closest intimates that the pressure was too much for her.'

Mrs Thatcher wept when her son Mark lost himself in the desert in 1982 and again when HMS Sheffield was sunk in the Falklands war. 'But that's not loss of bottle,' Mr Young says. Nor was Churchill's large consumption of brandy in the Second World War. Churchill, says Professor Clarke, coped with stress (his notorious 'black dog' moods) by 'surrounding himself with cronies, talking things over deep into the night, floating on alcohol through every day and distributing his own sense of stress among others'.

Mr Major is reported to have given up wine and whisky in recent weeks. Does that signify loss of bottle? Booze can alleviate the awfulness of office. Pitt the Elder, for example, managed the nation on three bottles of port daily. At one European summit, Mrs Thatcher calmed herself by borrowing whiskey from the Irish delegation. In prime ministers, livers don't count.

In Anthony Eden's case, gall-bladders counted. He had an operation on his in 1953. The surgery was not entirely successful, and symptoms would flare up with political crises, not least the Suez fiasco of 1956. Aware that Eden was not robust, Harold Macmillan gave his boss as much stress as he could, helping to drive him into melancholia and out of office. Yet when his turn came, Macmillan was not as unflappable as he pretended to be. Even before the Profumo affair, he was stressed before almost every major parliamentary speech, and used to vomit in the Commons lavatories.

Stress also afflicted Lloyd George, of whom Mr Major has spoken with admiration. The prickly Liberal leader addressed pre-speech nerves by prostrating himself on his office sofa, afterwards seeking another sofa where a mistress reclined for his pleasure.

Some prime ministers have seemed incapable of being emotionally cast down. Alec Douglas-Home could have stepped straight into the shoes of Trollope's prime ministerial ideal. He attributed this quality to the fact that he was 'provided with the hope of a God who is a Redeemer,' and to not being 'unduly influenced by the prospect, so to speak, of saving my own skin' which, apart from bones, was his only visible component. Clement Attlee seemed equally inscrutable. In 1947, facing difficulties not dissimilar to those of Mr Major (sagging economy, foreign exchange crisis), he broadcast to the people: 'I have a heavy responsibility upon me, but so have you.' Then off he went to Wales on holiday.

James Callaghan, tetchy behind the scenes, dealt with stressful challenges by playing the nation's uncle, flying on Concorde to Puerto Rico, devouring the 'most tender barbecued steaks I have ever eaten' in Canada, then cheerfully handing Michael Foot 'a bed of nails' when his party lost power in 1979. Edward Heath, like Mrs Thatcher, showed less stress in Downing Street than out of it, though he was lonely at Number Ten. Mr Heath preferred permanent secretaries, rather than kitchen cabinets, around him. Consequently he was so comfortless during the industrial storm of 1973-74 that Willie Whitelaw took pity and had chums invite Mr Heath to dinner.

When the question of prime ministerial stress crops up, one immediately thinks of Harold Wilson, who was obsessed about being persecuted in office. As Ben Pimlott points out in his newly published biography, Mr Wilson believed (possibly with good reason) that MI5 was bugging and smearing him. Mr Pimlott says people would be warned on entering the Wilson study: ' 'Shush, there are only three who can hear this conversation - me, you and MI5.' A senior civil servant told me about a trip abroad in 1965. Wilson took him into the lavatory of the prime minister's suite and ran the taps, indicating there might be a hidden microphone.' The author is sympathetic. 'You might call that a sign of stress, or you might call it justifiable caution,' he told me. 'I don't want to give the impression that he was terrifically paranoid. The first instinct of any prime minister is self-preservation. If they are under threat they pull up the drawbridge and take evasive action.'

Is Mr Major's drawbridge up? 'As a brother, when I see him on television, I am concerned for him,' says Terry Major-Ball. 'I look to see if he's looking well. And sometimes I drop into Downing Street and get the reactions of people there. But he looks perfectly normal, and nobody has said to me that John is tired or isolated. On the contrary, he is remarkably cheerful.'

A bit twitchy, perhaps, reading the Times tirade over his egg and toast? 'No,' his press secretary assured me before Mr Major's flight to Egypt on Friday. 'He just laughed.'

An extract from Ben Pimlott's 'Harold Wilson' is in the 'Sunday Review'

(Photographs omitted)

Comments