Political Commentary: Westminster warms to the charms of the Older Man

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE PRIME Minister before Mr John Major who was most prone to putting on shows of toughness was Lord Wilson. 'Wilson reads the Riot Act' the papers would proclaim. 'The rebels were on the mat,' his press officer would confide. 'I used locker-room language,' the great man himself would recollect. On closer investigation it would turn out that the words used had been perfectly decent, emollient even, concerning leaks from whatever body the Prime Minister happened to be addressing at the time.

Nevertheless he did produce some phrases which lasted.' I know what's going on. I'm going on,' was spoken at the party conference. To the parliamentary party he said: 'Every dog is allowed one bite, but a different view is taken of a dog that goes on biting all the time. He may not get his licence returned when it falls due.'

These words were uttered when Lord Wilson's leadership was being threatened - or when he thought it was being threatened. He survived, to retire voluntarily (I have never been able to see why there was supposed to be any mystery about it). Mr Major has said he wants to go in the same way, at a time and in a manner of his own choosing, though he did not mention Lord Wilson as an example to be emulated.

Lord Wilson was more fortunately placed than Mr Major, as Mr John Smith is today. No Labour leader since the post was created in 1922 has been forcibly removed. Ramsay MacDonald removed himself. Conservative leaders, by contrast, constitute a parade of assassinations. For superior academics to call this a truism does not make it any the less true.

Will Mr Major survive to lead the party at the next election? My guess is that he will. But that does not mean that the question is bogus or not worth discussing. It is virtually the sole topic of political conversation outside Westminster. Inside Westminster it is one of two. The other is: who will be the victim (for politicians see themselves as victims) of the next sex scandal?

The change over the last couple of weeks is that the trend which has been discernible in the adultery cases has caught on in the leadership stakes. The attractions of the Older Man have begun to be appreciated. Why, people ask, should they have Mr Kenneth Clarke forced on them? No doubt he is a fine fellow, but look at Health, observe Education, contemplate - if you can - the Home Office. What do all these troubled departments have in common? Why, that their fortunes were guided successively and briefly by Mr Clarke. 'Kindly sign this piece of paper absolving me of all responsibility,' he would say, 'while I telephone for a taxi.'

Nor do the tax increases which were cheered last Autumn look nearly so clever this Spring. Remember, only three of the Prime Ministers since 1955 had previously been Chancellor: Harold Macmillan, Lord Callaghan and Mr Major, who did the job only very briefly. And was it not the Home Office under Mr Clarke which facilitated the inquiries during the United States election into whether Mr Bill Clinton had applied for British citizenship with a view to evading the Vietnam draft?

Mr Clarke told the Commons Home Affairs Committee that the inquiries had been instigated by a journalist. Oddly enough, precisely the same defence was offered by the US State Department when it was likewise exposed as having opened Mr Clinton's passport files in the same quest. The name of the intrusive or assiduous British journalist was never revealed by Mr Clarke, though there is no reason why it should not have been.

It all sounds very fishy to me. Presumably Mr Clinton thought so as well. It certainly seems to have been one of the factors which led him to support the grant of a visa to Mr Gerry Adams. The antics of the Conservatives during the US presidential election appear increasingly to have been worse than a crime, a blunder.

However, I have always been opposed to refusing visas or rights of entry to people whom the government of the day, UK, US or whatever, considers for one reason or another to be undesirable. It is a form of totalitarianism. Moreover, if Mr Major had seen fit to entertain Mr Adams and his cronies to tea and buns, as he had, Mr Clinton evidently saw no reason why those citizens of his own country who wished to do likewise should be prevented from following their chosen course.

Mr Clarke was, as usual, conveniently away from the scene of the crime, leaving the slower-witted Mr Major and the stiffer-necked Mr Douglas Hurd to offer their excuses to the constabulary. Both of them made every political mistake which it was possible to make. They appeared at once angry and impotent, like a little boy battering his head on the floor of his playpen. Young Major is now, however, trying to climb out of the enclosure with the assistance of the old Anglo-Irish nurse Paddy Mayhew. He could not bear to be stuck inside, screaming his head off and banging his forehead on the wood.

No good will come of it. There will be tears before bedtime. If Mr Adams and his associates were so important before the Downing Street Declaration - so much so that they had to be endlessly flattered and indulged and, it may be added, kept out of prison as well - why has their indispensability suddenly disappeared? It cannot, or it should not, be because Mr Major has suffered a fit of pique on account of Mr Adams's visit to New York. But it looks uncommonly like it.

As we are on this subject, it may be worth pointing out that Mr Major misled the Commons some weeks ago about the reproduction of Mr Adams's words by actors. He said that the original restrictions had not been intended to work in this way. He implied that the broadcasting authorities had taken liberties, pulled a fast one.

On the contrary: Mr Hurd made clear at the time that the prohibition applied only to 'direct' statements and allowed 'voice-over', whether in indirect speech or verbatim. Indeed, when the case against the Government was heard by the Lords, Lord Bridge stood astounded by Mr Hurd's liberality. I have even heard it suggested that Mr Adams sounds more persuasive when his words are spoken by an actor rather than in his own tones.

All Prime Ministers who have meddled with Ireland have been mired in it. But none has been brought down directly because of it. It was the poll tax more than Europe which did for Lady Thatcher. Similarly, Mr Major is likely to be dislodged by high taxation generally and VAT on domestic fuel specifically. But in those circumstances Mr Clarke will share equally in the disgrace. The Age of the Older Man will have arrived.

In fact there are two of them. One is Mr Hurd, who, despite his petulant and ineffective performance last week, is still someone who looks like a Prime Minister. The other is Mr Michael Heseltine. 'Don't write Michael off,' is the latest Westminster murmur. Accordingly we may see a rerun of the 1990 contest - but with a different result.