Political Commentary: Don't let the Sun catch you crying

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The Independent Online
Dear Prime Minister,

I hope you and Norma are settling in all right at the Quinta dos Nalvedos. What a damned nuisance that the Sun sent its reptiles to Portugal and discovered your holiday hideout; goodness knows you deserve a peaceful break in complete seclusion after the past horrible year. But it looks lovely from the pictures. I'm slightly surprised that you haven't got a swimming pool, though. I hope you can find other ways of cooling off.

I know you want to use the time for calm reflection on the coming year. The danger is that you will become so depressed it will spoil your holiday. So I thought I would try and cheer you up. I don't mean to minimise the hazards. Christchurch was awful. Thank heavens you decided to make sure the House had risen before polling day. And the result isn't going to help you at the party conference in Blackpool. One of the troubles about That Bloody Woman's Eighties revolution is that we get a different type of person at the conference these days. They're not as deferential as they used to be; and a lot of them are jolly angry at the moment. So I hope you don't get too rough a ride.

(By the way, I know you would want me to be frank: platform speeches are not really your forte, so can I make a special plea that you get Ronnie Millar to work a bit of his magic for you as he did for her? I know he's a bit of an old ham, but if he could find the right sound bite half the battle would be over. Remember Harold Wilson and 'I know what's going on; I'm going on.' It did wonders for the old scoundrel.)

And I am still worried about Bill Cash and his foot soldiers. They're that most dangerous of things - a well-equipped army without a clear objective, but which refuses to demobilise. I wouldn't get too aerated about Cecil Parkinson and the Way Forward lot. Their sabre-rattling over public spending cuts sounds a bit more ferocious than it is. As Michael Portillo pointed out on Friday, just keeping to the targets you have already set will mean quite enough pain, thanks very much. Don't even think about lowering the ceiling even more. But Norman Lamont is still a bit of a time bomb. Only you and he know how much damage he can do if he spills the beans on Black Wednesday; but he's bound to feel bitter that sacrificing him made not a jot of difference to the party's political fortunes. If anything rather the reverse. Still, this is hardly cheering holiday reading, is it? So let's look on the bright side.

First, good luck with your trip to Tokyo next month. It's a smart move doing it at the same time as the Liberal Democrats' conference and I hope it steals some headlines from Paddy Ashdown. And it's jolly bold of you to stop off in Monaco on the way back on 23 September for the International Olympic Committee. I know how much personal lobbying you've already been doing; and you obviously think you may be able to swing some votes for Manchester. I just hope it turns out all right and you're not left explaining why Peking wouldn't be so bad after all. But a decision for Manchester would be a big fillip - almost like England winning the 1966 World Cup.

I know your personal ratings are the lowest on record for a prime minister. But in one critical respect you're better placed than Margaret was at the height of her unpopularity in 1990. The NOP/Independent on Sunday poll, which exactly predicted the Christchurch swing, also showed that the leadership isn't the big issue with voters. The vast majority of them said it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference to them if Kenneth or Douglas were leading the party. (Margaret would bring some voters back if she returned but, God help us, that isn't going to happen.) Contrast that with 1990 when all the polls showed that Michael Heseltine would transform the fortunes of the party if he became leader. And indeed, there isn't a Michael Heseltine in the wings. All your serious potential rivals are inside the Cabinet, which makes it more difficult for them to get a campaign off the ground.

The on dit - as dear Alan Clark would say - among the hacks is that there probably won't be a stalking-horse this year but that the real moment of danger for you is after the local and European elections next summer. But there are two ways of looking at this. The Euro-elections in 1989 were a disaster, so you are starting from such a low base that even a slight improvement would look good. Of course if you do even worse, it will be very grim - which is why the Central Office heavy breathers are already trying to discount the results and saying your political recovery will be a 'long haul', and so on. But there must be a chance of pulling back some ground if the punters' economic optimism has returned. Which brings me - at last - to the real point of this letter.

I know you have been thinking about going to the country sooner rather than later. And I am sure you are right. There are several reasons why I am sure an election by 1995 would be sensible if you get the ghost of an opportunity.

First, your majority is going to fall if you suffer further by- election defeats. I know you've got an understanding with the Ulster Unionists but I'm not sure how reliable they are or how comfortable it will be for you to depend on them in the longer term. Second, even though you have got Maastricht out of the way, party management, particularly on Europe, is still going to be horrendous, especially if the election isn't over with by the time of the inter-governmental EC conference in 1996. Third, we always thought it would be worth waiting for legislation on the current boundary review. But our chaps are saying now it may not give us more than half a dozen extra seats. Fourth, who knows how quickly any economic recovery may be followed by another downturn, inflation going out of control, goodness knows what? And finally, if you can see to it that by next spring the prospect of an early election has become the conventional wisdom, then it should bang a few heads together and shore up your own position. Don't forget quite a few of our chaps still think they owe their seats to your election campaign in '92.

All this depends, of course, first on the economic recovery, and then on a political recovery following it. And goodness knows, none of us can bet on that. But my firm advice - and incidentally that of quite a number of your other ministerial friends - is, if you move ahead, even marginally, in the polls during 1994-95, go for it.

I know you will think seriously about all this. I could go on at length, but I must run to catch the diplomatic bag for Portugal. In these uncertain times I'm not sure I would want this advice attributed to me and blazoned all over the yellow press. So just in case one of those ghastly paparazzi picks up my letter through a telephoto lens while you read it on the terrace, I hope you won't mind if I just sign off:

A Loyal Supporter.

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