Political Commentary: A PM with his position in peril

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IS THE reshuffle enough to restore the Government's fortunes? Or will it mark the beginning of the end - the moment when Conservative MPs were finally convinced that John Major should spend more time in his garden? Until now, people have talked of Mr Major's leadership being on probation for a year. That view may underestimate his immediate difficulties.

Contrast the reception accorded last week to two senior ministers, one of whom had been shuffled, one not. In Newcastle, the unshuffled John Patten took a battering from the conference of the National Association of Head Teachers, which, if tactfully handled, will normally eat out of the hand of a Tory Secretary of State. Instead of the usual polite applause, the delegates hissed.

The new Home Secretary, Michael Howard, also found himself in potentially hostile, though untelevised, terrain at Croydon police station. On a routine visit he met the local Police Federation branch secretary, Sergeant Mike Bennett, the man who a few weeks ago denounced Mr Howard's predecessor, Kenneth Clarke, as 'an arrogant, rude, social snob'. Mr Howard emerged without a scratch; the new Home Secretary, Sgt Bennett declared, was 'a good listener'.

The two encounters illustrate the truth about Mr Major's half- hearted reshuffle - or, as Paddy Ashdown described it, his 'sacking dressed up as a reshuffle'. It was successful in limited areas but failed to lance enough of the Government's political boils. It underestimated the depth of the hole the Government is in and the degree of disenchantment in the country and in the Conservative Party. By the end of last week Gallup showed Mr Major to be the most unpopular prime minister since records began and readers of the Sun voted him a bigger flop than Graham Taylor, the England football manager.

Even the good news about the reshuffle could well prove bad news for Mr Major unless his performances can match those of his new star performers. Kenneth Clarke's buccaneering approach was proving highly controversial at the Home Office, particularly with big and delicate decisions due on the reform of the criminal justice system. Mr Clarke was determined to take on the police. Mr Howard, by contrast, had argued against the amalgamation of many of the nation's police forces while he was at the Department of the Environment. True, Mr Clarke had been softening in recent months but the net result will be a more limited reform than that originally proposed; Mr Howard's tone is already going down better with the boys in blue.

Similarly Mr Clarke's installation at the Treasury has pleased the City. Perhaps nothing too surprising here; a traffic cone would have won applause in some dealing rooms on the grounds that it was not Norman Lamont. Mr Clarke, the Cabinet's best performer, is likely to to provide a deft political touch as the Treasury battles to control the spiralling deficit. The danger is that this contrasts with No 10.

The strategy behind the reshuffle is clear. The police and the City are two constituencies on which Conservatives have traditionally relied for support. They have been shored up. So have the farmers, another Tory vested interest. Out goes John Gummer, who has accumulated many enemies at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food since 1989. In comes Gillian Shephard, to a warm welcome from the National Farmers' Union.

But is this enough? Mr Major has missed an opportunity to deal with some other notable trouble spots, of which education is the obvious example. Meanwhile, Mr Gummer hardly impressed those sceptical of his value to the Cabinet by managing two mistakes in his first radio interview as Environment Secretary.

With Mr Lamont out of the picture, attention focused squarely on Mr Major last week. The right of the party remains restive - witness the attack last week by Edward Leigh, the junior minister sacked for recalcitrance over Maastricht. Mr Leigh not only regaled the nation with the details of his conversation with the Prime Minister but also urged the right to fight its corner even harder.

Mr Lamont may not be in a position to emulate Sir Geoffrey Howe's seismic Commons resignation speech. But a choice revelation about Mr Major's behaviour during last September's exchange rate mechanism crisis could further weaken the Prime Minister's authority. And the Maastricht troubles are far from over. Verbal fireworks are expected from Lady Thatcher and Lord Tebbit when the Bill goes to the Lords this week.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch, - a hitherto little-known peer, who lists his recreations as stalking, fishing and golf - is working effectively to muster a sizeable showing of Euro-sceptic backwoodsmen. The Maastricht rebels in the Commons have met their Lords counterparts over dinner to thrash out their strategy. Even if the Bill goes through the Lords unscathed, as it probably will, the Government faces a Commons division over the Social Chapter. June and July are notoriously fractious months for governments and, because of Maastricht, this one is not in a position to send its troops home early.

Mr Major's fate, however, depends less on the Euro-sceptics than on the rest of the party. While Mr Leigh's disclosures in the Spectator made good reading, the words of the more mainstream MP for Taunton, David Nicholson, encapsulated the feelings of the public. Gallup asked whether people agreed with Mr Nicholson's view, expressed in Parliament last month that there is a 'sense of lack of competence and of lack of sense of direction at the heart of government' - 77 per cent concurred.

The Conservative Party activists are deeply unhappy about a largely unsung Liberal Democrat revival which has put Mr Ashdown's party in its best opinion poll position since the Alliance days of 1987. Then, the doorsteps rang with complaints about 'that woman'. There is little evidence that voters have as much personal dislike for Mr Major as they had for Margaret Thatcher, as she then was. Rather, they feel that Downing Street is not in control of events. Of those polled by Gallup Mr Major is now ranked evenly with Mr Clarke and Michael Heseltine in suitability for the top job.

Mid-term polls can be easily dismissed but Tory councillors got a rude awakening at last month's local elections. This year's Conservative Party conference in Blackpool will be a crucial test of their loyalty to Mr Major.

By October the Prime Minister will hope to enjoy more sustained economic growth and to have benefited from the performance of the powerful new Treasury team. Law and order may emerge as a bigger Tory vote-winner and the party conference may decide to pull together in a show of unity, before next year's Euro-elections.

On the other hand, decisions on public spending and taxes could rebound on the Government, and the Christchurch by- election will probably turn into a repeat of the Newbury nightmare. In that case, the anger of Mr Leigh and of grassroots supporters might just infect the pragmatic section of the Conservative Party, a much more potent force than the disaffected right.

Suddenly those who, a fortnight ago, wrote off the prospect of a leadership challenge this autumn are not so sure.