Reform, reshuffle . . . or rot: Things are so bad for the Tories that the only answer is a relaunch, says Andrew Marr

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ONLY one year on? It has been as if the Tories, exhausted after years of power, were able to summon up a final burst of energy to win a fourth victory but, once over the winning line, had collapsed with exhaustion. As if they had been simply unable to shoulder the new burdens that victory brought.

As if . . . but not necessarily so. The big question is whether the Tory rot of the past year is one from which the party and Prime Minister can recover; or whether an irreversible political decline has set in.

While John Major may get over this rebellion, or that parliamentary embarrassment, in the short term, he cannot recover without a fundamental shift in public attitudes towards him. Perhaps that shift will be helped by a powerful economic recovery. But he cannot afford to assume so. There are deeper forces at work.

The year since the election has challenged the simple notion that cabinet ministers are in charge. It wasn't the Government's business managers who dictated the timing of the endless Maastricht Bill, but the Liberal Democrats, plus a small number of Tory Maastricht rebels. Because of them, too, the Government was unable to introduce some of the more eye-catching populist Bills it had wanted. On specific issues, above all Matrix Churchill and the pit closures, parliamentary and public opinion forced the pace, while ministers hobbled wretchedly behind.

Those domestic curbs on ministerial power were the direct result of a small Commons majority and indecisive leadership. Much more important though, was the way the global economy and Euro- politics made pygmies of national leaders. Who was the dominant player in economic policy? Not the Chancellor, but the money markets. When it came to monetary policy, the Bank of England was virtually irrelevant. (The Bundesbank wasn't) And the recovery still depends on whether American economic revival outmatches Franco-German recession. No minister can honestly take credit for that.

What about Maastricht, so central to Mr Major? There again, his reputation is still partly in the hands of others - rebels, irritated Danish voters who have barely heard of him, and French and German politicians. If the Danes kill Maastricht, Mr Major will be saved in the short term: but if the French and Germans then go ahead with a single currency, British isolation will be reinforced. Whatever way these issues play, the biggest role Mr Major can play is an unheroic, passive one.

His relative powerlessness is, in short, a historical and economic fact as much as a personal one. As power shifts around, from one level of government to another, or from the public sector to the private one, anyone left with the trappings of old power, but without real power, tends to look a bit ridiculous. Once, for instance, local mayors with their fur-trimmed gowns and funny hats were important people, whose arrival at some local event added real lustre. Now, thanks to the war against local government, they are stuffed and over-trimmed nobodies.

It is, I accept, rather hard to see Mr Major as a political victim. But he too inhabits a historic role that has shrunk faster than many people realise. Not big enough for the job? Hmm . . . but before you sneer about his capabilities, think about new limitations on the job itself.

There is a nine-stone, shoulder-padded rebuke to this argument, of course, now known as Baroness Thatcher. But her huge domestic agenda, in precisely those areas where national governments are still potent, is mostly accomplished. And she was lucky in her overseas engagements: the Falklands war was probably the last independent British military campaign of any size. In Europe, the reality of the power-shift created by the Single European Act was hidden by the pyrotechnics of her arguments about the budget.

So what can be done? Mr Major is not the master of his fate - but he is the captain of his soul. He can find ways to exploit the diminished political situation he is in. Indeed, to survive, he must.

Why shouldn't he start with the basics, the big jobs crying out to be done? There are only two, industrial regeneration and political reform. The former needs a coherent, long-term education strategy that everyone understands, which doesn't change each year, and which receives

a steadily larger share of national investment.

Since the Government's share of spending is already too high, this will mean further cuts elsewhere, almost certainly in middle-class subsidies and defence spending. It also needs a more overt industrial policy, of the kind the Government is already practising, but is embarrassed to proclaim too openly.

Even if the right policies were in place, it might take Britain a generation to rebuild its wealth-creating base. It would be a long march. Yet ministers, including the Prime Minister, convey no real sense of where they want to march Britain to. Words are a politician's only weapons.

The political reform programme might appear much harder for a Tory leader to embrace since it leads towards electoral reform. But much of the rest of the programme, including freedom of information, a Bill of Rights and reform of the House of Lords, could perfectly well be instituted by the Tories. Indeed, since this will form a central part of Labour's strategy for the next election, it would be a shrewd move for them to steal it.

Could such a programme be accomplished? It has the merit of being almost wholly inside the Prime Minister's residual areas of authority. It has nothing to do with capital markets or foreign politicians. Would the Conservative Party wear it? That depends on whether Mr Major leads from the front and forces disloyalist Tories to follow him. Even now, Europe aside, they want to be led.

A lot of ink has been spilt, mostly to good effect, about the ideological crisis on the left caused by the collapse of communism and the failure of Western socialist solutions. But there has been almost as acute an ideological crisis on the right. With the old enemies gone, Christian Democrat and Conservative governments everywhere have been asking themselves what they really stand for. Old coalitions of interest break asunder and uncomfortable new questions appear.

In Britain it is impossible to say whether the Conservative Party is a nationalist party or not and its traditional visionary language, about choice and freedom, now appears merely banal. A function of success? Yes, but a signpost to future failure, too.

There are no easy answers, for politicians or the rest of us. Voters too feel less ideologically committed, less politically engaged and generally more pessimistic about society. But a clear reformist agenda, from whatever party, would do, at least for the time being.

In the Tories' case, it would amount to a virtual relaunch of the Major administration - a new manifesto without a new election to validate it, and probably a drastic reshuffle, too. But after only one year of government, such a strategy is the only way that the Prime Minister can stop the rot. Are things that bad? Things are.

(Photograph omitted)