Political Commentary: To Mrs Major, Mr Major is definitely Prime Minister

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SOMETIMES, contemplating Mr John Major, I remember the story of the young New Yorker who made some money in the garment industry. With his newly acquired wealth he purchased a boat, together with a cap and blazer to accompany it. So attired, he visited his family in Brooklyn, intending to invite them out for a trip.

'Look, pop,' he said, 'I'm a captain.'

His father replied: 'To you you're a captain. To your sister you may be a captain. To your mom, sure, she loves you, you're a captain. So I say, OK, who cares? You're a captain. But I ask you this, son: to a captain, are you a captain?'

Just so. To a prime minister, is Mr Major a prime minister?

Clearly to Lady Thatcher he is not. She said she made a mistake in recommending him after her fall. This is the only mistake she has ever admitted. Her urgings on Mr Major's behalf went beyond simple recommendation. They were often indistinguishable from bullying. He might still have won without her endeavours. But he would not have won so convincingly. A period of silence on her part would be welcome.

Nevertheless, Conservatives who are not so involved personally as she and are on a different side of the party agree. Mr Major may not be a prime minister to a prime minister. The trouble is that he is not one to anyone else either.

There is a sense in which some of us are quite glad of this. We had enough screaming and shouting between 1979 and 1990 to last a lifetime. Many voters, in any case, have enough of it at home. But there is still a prime ministerial problem. Those who are properly grateful that Mr Major is not Lady Thatcher go on to acknowledge it. Mr Major is not taken seriously. He is a figure of fun. The verdict up and down the land is that he is 'no doubt a nice enough chap' but 'weak' and 'no leader'.

Manifestly he has no gift of language. Ten days ago, for example, he described the IRA's initial assault on Heathrow as an 'unjustifiable attack'. What, we are entitled to wonder, could have provided a justification of any kind? This is a matter not of inspiration, which comes largely from the gods, but of precision, which with application can be learnt.

Lady Thatcher was always reasonably precise, except on the numerous occasions (mentioned in her memoirs) when it suited her purposes not to be. However, she has no gift with words. Nor did any other Conservative leader since Harold Macmillan, who was a fine speaker, a scintillating talker but a pedestrian writer.

Mr Major believes that this kind of judgement - which assesses prime ministers rather as if they were batsmen, or books - is irrelevant to what the voters do. After all, he won a real election. He did more than any recent prime minister who had succeeded during his party's period of office. Lord Callaghan failed in 1979, Lord Home in 1964. We have to go back to Macmillan in 1959 to find an equivalent achievement. 'I am still the same man who won that election,' Mr Major says. 'I have not changed.'

Nor has he - more's the pity, some might add. But the way in which he is regarded has changed. This is because the way in which the whole government is regarded has changed as well. I find this slightly unfair both to the government and, consequentially, to Mr Major. But there it is. People come up to me and ask:

'Tell me, is this the most incompetent government of modern times? It must be.'

To which I reply: 'No, no. The most incompetent government of modern times, madam, was undoubtedly Heath's'

This is not, I fear, the answer that is expected. It tends to be received with the wan look rather than the warm smile. Perhaps people are too young, have forgotten. Certainly Sir Edward later attracted a good deal of fortuitous acclaim in progressive circles on account of his hatred for Lady Thatcher. And today, as a vigorous old curmudgeon of nearly 78, he deserves some respect. Still, he was a rotten prime minister.

But then, assessments of governments are a highly personal matter. I refuse to join in the general exaltation of C R Attlee's government, 1945-51. I continue obstinately to maintain that the best government since the war was Macmillan's first, 1957-9, closely followed by Winston Churchill's, 1951-5. It may be that I believe this because for me the forties were a period of adolescence, cold and rationing; the fifties, one of expansion and hope. Who can tell?

What is clear is that the present government is held in low esteem, and that (whatever the polls may say) this degree of scorn was attained shortly after the removal of the pound from the exchange rate mechanism. Ministers previously in favour of the ERM have shamelessly been trying to take the credit for any economic improvement since then. But it does not seem to have worked with the voters.

In these circumstances, prime ministers use a well-tried though not always successful device. They have a reshuffle. In this exercise Mr Major is, however, constrained by several factors: the instability of his own position, the question of Europe, the deliberations of Lord Justice Scott, not least, the dearth of talent on his own benches. There are no Young Turks. This reminds me of a story about Jack Nener, the late editor of the Daily Mirror, and his deputy, Dick Dinsdale. Over a drink, Dinsdale said to Nener: 'What we need on the paper, Jack, are some Young Turks.'

Nener pondered this suggestion for a moment before replying: 'I can see it would be useful to have a few more young reporters around, Dick, but why do they have to be Turkish?'

Turkish or British, there are few of them in today's Conservative Party. The only conceivable replacement for Mr Douglas Hurd is Mr Michael Heseltine, who is 61 tomorrow. But does Mr Hurd want to go? He must become sick of spending his time climbing, at one minute, into aeroplanes and, at another, out of them. The Mr Worldly Wisemen add that 'poor Douglas has no money' and 'young children to educate', for all the world as if the City of London had no other function than to subsidise retired Tory ministers, who, to the rest of us, appear prosperous enough - though certainly this does seem to be one of the City's principal reasons for existence.

But my guess is that Mr Hurd will stay where he is until next autumn at the earliest. Lately the odds against his succeeding Mr Major have lengthened, with all the Daily Mail's money going on Mr Heseltine. Last week the paper had an entire leading article hailing him as a Man of Action simply because he had introduced a hurried Bill relating to insolvency practice. Mr Kenneth Clarke's odds have lengthened too. He has given an imprudent promise to resign if he is adversely criticised by Lord Justice Scott. All wait on the learned judge. Then they wait for November, when there may or may not be an election for leader, after which everything will be clearer.