Pull together now, or it could all fall apart

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The Independent Online
WERE I John Major, I'd be less concerned about the sniping from grudge-filled backbenchers than the stony silence from so many senior colleagues. Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke, Michael Portillo, Peter Lilley and most of the rest of the Cabinet are not contractually obliged to wade in to support a slogan dreamt up at No 10. Some of them didn't much like it in the first place; others hoped to hijack it; they may all hope that radio silence will eventually quell the embarrassment it has created. And yet . . . the Prime Minister is getting less support than he needs. It clearly worries him: cabinet ministers have been told to get out and defend the strategy this weekend.

From a Conservative point of view, there are various reasons for not rallying round Mr Major's 'back to basics'. And they are all wrong. You might reckon that the slogan is so flawed it has to be abandoned - that it has become an open invitation to detonate further scandals, a repeat-action anti-

personnel mine. If 'back to basics' is only about the delivery of competent policy in education, criminal justice and economic policy, then it is so obvious that it need never be mentioned again. If it is more than that, it is pernicious. Either way, junk it.

But this is a nave argument. For we all know what the slogan really represents, don't we? 'Back to basics' means 'John Major'. It is a propaganda phrase wound round the career of the Prime Minister, about the only distinctive thing he is currently wearing. The job of a leader is to convey a sense of direction, of coherence, of meaning. The Citizen's Charter touched too few lives, too narrowly, to take that sort of philosophical weight. 'Back to basics' was Mr Major's final stab at it this parliament. So junk that and you might as well junk him.

Which leads us neatly to the second reason why Conservatives might not strive officiously to keep alive this troubled idea: they want to junk him. This is a more logical position than the other, if also bolder and more treacherous. They don't much rate him in many of those ministerial offices, nor is there a sustaining reservoir of affection for Mr Major to draw on. It is strange, that, for a man so widely liked, so recently. Perhaps it is that all Tory factions know the Prime Minister is not 'their' man - and he has no faction of his own. (Despite being loyally ubiquitous and vehemently loyal, Sir Norman Fowler does not count as a faction.)

But is this really an administration whose standing would be transformed in the eyes of voters by the substitution of Mr Clarke for Mr Major? Like most political reporters, I am intrigued by Mr Clarke. He is an energetic man who pretends to be lazy; a man gifted with a nonchalant but deadly rhetoric; an in-fighter with a misleadingly genial manner. He is, moreover, someone whose happy embrace of our fallen state makes him an impossible sermoniser - you cannot keep your fingers tightly clasped round a Panatella, and wag them at the same time. But for now, Mr Clarke is a fascinating future proposition, rather than 'The Answer'.

That is a more difficult matter. Unless this government convinces people that it is united and has a big, serious job to do, it cannot recover. At the moment it seems less like an administration than a collection of individuals of varying abilities thrown together by accident and left with a variety of unconnected problems to resolve. Even on Mr Major's preferred redefinition of 'back to basics' they have had little to show in the way of success. Having taken no part of the blame for the recession, they may find it hard to get much credit for recovery. The Criminal Justice Bill may be long and tough but it follows 14 years of failure on crime and innumerable other 'toughest ever' initiatives. The education reforms may produce results; but so far most parents are worried and confused, rather than inspired.

In private, too many ministers come alive only when discussing side issues or Tory faction fights. Generally, there is a decadent obsession with personalities and tittle- tattle, rather than with policy (and yes, I'm talking about the ministers, not the journalists). So the Government needs new faces less than it needs a sense of purpose and unity among the old faces.

How might such a transformation come about? Not through propaganda or leadership coups. 'Back to basics' has demonstrated the dangers of trying to impose a spurious philosophical purpose where there is none. Nor are any potential leaders men of such magnetic attraction as to pull the administration suddenly together in mid-term. No - the Tories' best hope is the instinct of self-preservation. The writer Joyce Cary said that the only good government was a bad government in a hell of a fright. And my conclusion about the rather detached attitude of most leading Tories to John Major's difficulties are that they are fundamentally complacent. They think that whatever happens, however much of a plonker this or that minister looks, it will be all right on the night. They need not concentrate too much because Labour is still unelectable.

Only such complacency, or a widespread exhaustion with public affairs, can explain the lack of alarm and failure to close ranks among senior Tories in response to this critical mid-term loss of authority. Even Mr Major's description of it as a 'little flurry of criticism' was in the 'little local difficulty' or 'Crisis - what crisis?' class. Only Douglas Hurd, so far as I know, has decided to tackle the central problems head on in a big speech this week. For the Tories, such complacency is a mistake: they are badly misreading Labour and the public mood.