Political Commentary: PM waits to break with the past

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THREE (true) vignettes from the second half of the 1980s: A right- wing Tory backbencher, asked whether a large and loss-making manufacturing plant employing several hundred of his constituents is going to be closed replies: 'I hope so.' A Treasury official, asked what he would tell a schoolboy were now the national economic talents of the British, says: 'Some forms of banking and assembling Japanese cars.' A senior Cabinet minister (now no longer in the Government) discussing the political saliency of the dole queues, says: 'I'll believe there's an unemployment problem in this country when there are British waiters in the restaurants.'

These remarks have several features in common. They were, to say the least, ideologically robust. They showed a marked lack of reverence for manufacturing employment in what was once the workshop of the world; they reflected a North Sea oil-driven economic self-confidence, then at its peak; and they were the kind of remarks that you cannot imagine John Major making, in private any more than in public.

Words don't build factories. But Mr Major was saying something important in the most controversial passage of his interview with Andrew Marr in the Independent. There was a quite widespread culture prevailing in many parts of the 1980s Tory party which emphasised that job growth lay in the service industries rather than in manufacturing. Lord Young and Lord Lawson were certainly seen as exponents of this view. In his memoirs, Lord Lawson, unrepentant as usual, says he did 'not even pay lip service to the contemporary House of Lords report on manufacturing, which advocated deliberate government preference for that sector, and I was attacked as being anti-manufacturing because I declined to label any sector of the economy as uniquely meritorious'.

The former Chancellor points out that discussion of the word 'manufacturing' is 'not helped by the confusion between manufacturing output and employment'. Certainly manufacturing productivity increased spectacularly during his Chancellorship - at a human cost expressed in the loss of more than two million jobs. But he makes it no secret that he did not share the now much more widespread view that manufacturing required special help because of its importance as a creator of the wealth on which all jobs, including those in service industries depend. And there were certainly differences of view within the Cabinet on this question in the later Thatcher years. Sir Geoffrey Howe, for example, worried aloud about manufacturing industry when he was Leader of the Commons and well before his legendary resignation. And at least one dispassionate Whitehall insider remembers Chancellor Major making it known to Number 10 that he did not share the Lawson view of manufacturing.

What got Mr Major into trouble last week was his explicit declaration that he was in a minority in favouring manufacturing industry; a remark quite reasonably interpreted as meaning that he put some of the blame on Mrs Thatcher and that he rather ungallantly appeared to be reluctant to take any of it himself. One post hoc interpretation of Mr Major's remarks was that he was in fact talking not about Mrs Thatcher but of the Treasury under Nigel Lawson. But either way it is a kind of retrospective abolition of collective Cabinet responsibility - a technique by no means peculiar to Mr Major. Nigel Lawson himself did it in relation to the poll tax, though Mr Lawson could, if pressed, point to specific Cabinet minutes and meetings in which he wrote and spoke against the tax. He even went coyly semi-public at the time; in his memoirs he gloats that not a single journalist noticed that his name was missing from the official sponsors of the Bill which introduced the hated tax. But then an extraordinary aspect of the poll tax was that, at least in private, the large majority of his Cabinet colleagues agreed with him; and Mrs Thatcher still got her way.

So why was Mr Major so quick to disavow any hint that he had been criticising Mrs Thatcher? The reason, of course, is Maastricht and the increasingly edgy relationship he has with the Jacobite tendency who hanker after her and are also relentlessly opposing him on the treaty. Her power may be more perceived than real; but she can still make headlines simply by sitting down to a meal with a couple of middle- ranking Euro-sceptic ministers.

You would expect Mr Major and his closest Cabinet colleagues to be relieved that one of the deadliest Labour amendments to the treaty has been ruled out of order by the deputy speaker Michael Morris. But they remain apprehensive that Labour will find another which is in order; and to judge by their mood at the Conservative Central Council in Harrogate, something has snapped. They are fed up with being blocked on Maastricht. They are wearied with having to postpone closure motions because they cannot guarantee a majority. They believe the Maastricht process is now corroding the process of government. Loyalist MPs talk ominously of the Euro-rebels as having formed a 'party within a party'. There is no overt talk of withdrawing the whip from rebels but some constituency associations with rebel MPs are getting restive. There is a new mood of impatience among most senior Cabinet ministers. They want the Bill over with.

Whether Mr Major will use the new freedom that completion of Maastricht would give him to conduct a sweeping reshuffle of his Cabinet this year is still not decided. Douglas Hurd is certainly not stepping down, for which Mr Major must be profoundly grateful. A good deal may yet depend on how the Budget is received next week. Norman Lamont is the only vulnerable Minister in the top ranks; but by all accounts the force is rather with him at present. The Budget is likely to be fiscally prudent, with a modest net raising of taxes. Mr Lamont has been toughened, rather than the reverse, by having a more consistently bad press than almost any post-war politician. He is preparing a post-Budget media blitz to sell his economic strategy to the country. His supporters insist that his relationship with the Prime Minister and the level of support he enjoys in the party are better than his opponents imagine. And for all the opprobrium heaped on him, his first two Budgets (the second was the pre-election one) were political successes. Several of his colleagues still expect him to be moved; but he plans to fight his corner with some gusto.

But the real value to the Prime Minister of completing Maastricht would be that it would liberate him to make the break with the past, which he attempted so hesitantly last week. It is possible to imagine Mr Major using his party conference speech in October both to laud the triumphs and acknowledge the deficiencies of the Thatcher years. Politicians dread the reaction from their opponents when they do this; but it is absurd to suppose that ideas do not change in 14 years. Mr Major demonstrated again last week how difficult he finds it to break free of his predecessor. Paradoxically, he might have found it easier if, in the process, he had shouldered some of the collective responsibility for the failings of that period. He is not, after all, standing for the Conservative Party leadership any more. The use of one little personal pronoun might have helped him out of his difficulties last week. The word 'we' brought nothing but trouble to his predecessor; for Mr Major it could yet prove a potent source of renewal.