Political Commentary: Lady Thatcher has become a nuisance

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WHILE he was Foreign Secretary, Mr John Major confessed to me that the greatest political influence in his life had been Iain Macleod. I write 'confessed' because he was telling me, not a shameful secret exactly, but something that might land him in trouble if it became generally known. It was as if a Glasgow Catholic were to admit to being a secret supporter of Rangers, or a disciple of F R Leavis to acknowledge the merits of Evelyn Waugh.

This early influence, Mr Major indicated, was not to be trumpeted abroad. Nor was his youthful admiration for R A Butler. I complied until his formative politicians became widely publicised, when I considered myself no longer bound.

Certainly Macleod is much misunderstood. With Mr Enoch Powell, he first proposed selectivity in the social services. He hated Socialism and the BBC in roughly equal proportions. It was he who, in his 'Quoodle' column in the Spectator, invented the phrase 'the nanny state'. He was a tougher Tory than Butler but possessed a capacity to inspire the young which Butler lacked.

He would never have said that he believed in a classless society. What he did say was that all men were brothers. In the early 1980s it was natural that his name should be invoked, with Disraeli and 'One Nation', as a symbol of opposition to Lady Thatcher.

It therefore seemed clear in November 1990 that, from her point of view, she had chosen the wrong chap as successor. She certainly urged her former supporters to vote for him in the second ballot, making personal telephone calls for this purpose. The aficionados shook their heads and said that she was backing the most left-wing of the three candidates.

For a time it looked as if they were correct. It is usually forgotten now that Mr Major or his ministers rapidly reversed several measures to which Lady Thatcher had been obstinately attached. The most notable of these was the poll tax (which all three candidates had promised to abolish). The most humane concerned blood for haemophiliacs. And life in the higher political reaches was sweeter, more free, less subject to arbitrary terror. The doctrine of the Divine Right of Prime Ministers was finally at an end.

At the same time, we were given to understand, Mr Major could not do exactly as he wished. As Lady Thatcher disobligingly pointed out, his rule had not yet been sanctified by the People, as hers had been on three separate occasions. Mr Major felt this as well, though he did not thank Lady Thatcher for saying so. Then he won an election, virtually on his own, certainly against the odds. Admittedly the recent precedents, Sir Edward Heath in 1970 and Lord Wilson in February 1974, were not specially encouraging. The majority of 21, now 17, was not large by the standards of the 1980s, though useful enough by those of the 1970s. Still, one would have expected Mr Major to be triumphant, confirmed in office by the People, able to do what he wanted; above all, free to disregard his immediate predecessor and to tell her firmly that a period of silence on her part would be welcome.

In practice the reverse has occurred in almost every respect. Lady Thatcher has been endlessly flattered and indulged, though last week Mr Major was spared the duty of kissing her. Supposedly 'Thatcherite' policies which no one wants and even she would have hesitated to implement - such as the privatisation of the mail and the railways - are being forced through Parliament as if the Government had a majority of 100 and she were still in charge. And last week saw ministers such as Mr Peter Lilley and Mr David Hunt demean themselves before the conference.

Here is a word in Mr Hunt's ear: You are doing yourself no good, old lad, with all this screaming and shouting. The people who were yelling their heads off in approval of your insults to Mr Jacques Delors are not the people who will be voting - or not voting - for you at Westminster. Moreover, Mr Delors can read the English papers, probably more easily than you can read the French ones.

We always knew that Mr Lilley had his doubts about Europe. They are perfectly respectable things to have. I have them myself. What we did not know was that he was quite such a nasty little populist as well. The real significance of his speech, however, lay in its defiance of Mr Major's authority.

When Mr Michael Heseltine, in happier times, used to go well beyond his ministerial ambit, he did so to attack Labour. Mr Lilley went beyond his brief to attack the European Community. I realise that ministers have at least four voices about Europe, in ascending degrees of hostility: for Brussels, for the Commons, for the voters and for the conference. Nevertheless, if Mr Lilley were honourable, he would not serve in the Cabinet. If Mr Major were stronger, he would not have him there.

Mr Michael Howard I put in a separate category, partly because he was addressing real concerns seriously, partly because I approve of some of his remedies, notably the abolition of the so-called right of silence. It seems to me quite contrary to common sense that, if someone is accused of something, he or she should have the right to say nothing at all and not suffer legally thereby. In practice many of the assaults by the police derive from this very right and the consequential frustration.

The one hint of defiance came from Mr Kenneth Clarke, when he said that reluctantly he might have to increase direct taxes in November. Much good did it do him. Mr Major said the same on Friday and was loudly applauded. Whether Mr Clarke is economically correct or not - he probably is - Mr Norman Lamont should surely observe a period of silence. For, as we have been able to see, the question of direct and indirect taxes has ceased to be one of economic correctness. It has become one of political allegiance.

In this it resembles Europe. But the Maastricht Treaty is ratified. After many difficulties, most of them self-imposed, all is safely gathered in. The treaty may come to something; or it may not. There did not seem to be any valid political reason why ministers should have felt it necessary to ingratiate themselves as they did with the conference.

Still less is there any reason for sucking up to Lady Thatcher. It was not her fault that the Daily Mirror produced those damaging quotations last week. They derived indirectly from her crazed love of money. But she has now become a nuisance.

Some leading Conservative should now do to her what Ernest Bevin did to George Lansbury. Bevin said at the 1935 Labour conference that Lansbury should not be 'hawking your conscience round from body to body asking to be told what to do with it'. The difference is that Lady Thatcher does not ask anyone at all: she knows. When the suggestion that some minister should intervene was put to Mr Douglas Hurd last week, he thought for a long time and gave an inconclusive answer. We shall see what happens. But, despite a little flick at the beginning of his speech, it is fairly clear that the man to play Bevin will not be John Major.