She's probably right about charming John

Click to follow
I THINK I know how Baroness Thatcher feels. That is to say, I think I know how she feels about John Major. The anger in her memoirs seems largely reserved for Lords Howe and Lawson, whom she clearly sees as the principal architects of her downfall (she is also pretty angry with herself: too indulgent, too trusting, too tolerant - all those things we always suspected her of being).

But try as she may, she is not angry with Mr Major. All she feels is disappointed, puzzled and a little contemptuous. Whereas Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe were co-conspirators - the one driven by arrogance, the other by malice (principled disagreement, at least with her, is not something Lady Thatcher easily recognises) - Mr Major is a poor directionless thing. He is a piece of flotsam, bobbing on the surface, pulled hither and thither by wave and tide.

Until recently, I would have thought that to be a mean-minded and wholly inaccurate judgement of Mr Major. Lady Thatcher's problem, I would have said, was that she never bothered to find out where Mr Major was coming from before she concluded that he had the makings of a successor.

The reasons why he was singled out for prime ministerial patronage are not difficult to explain. As first a whip, followed by a spell as junior social security minister, then as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Mr Major had proved himself to be efficient, well-briefed and, above all, extremely charming. Whatever ideological baggage he might have been carrying was so well concealed that Mrs Thatcher felt entitled to believe that he was 'one of us'.

A further factor was the lack of promotable alternatives from the right of the party and from the appropriate age group. So it was that, when Mrs Thatcher quickly needed first a new Foreign Secretary and then a Chancellor, it was John the Charmer who got the call.

If Lady Thatcher's memoirs are to be believed - and the extracts I have read strike me as being basically truthful, albeit self-serving and occasionally deluded - her disenchantment with the new Chancellor set in fairly quickly. The principal cause of the Prime Minister's unease was - what else? - Europe. But it never occurs to her that he may be, in her sort of language, a closet Europhile. Her complaint about him is that he is a compromiser and a conciliator.

On becoming Chancellor, he immediately recognised that the party's majority European wing needed to be appeased. As Lady Thatcher puts it: 'John had one great objective: to keep the party together. To him, that meant that we must enter the European exchange rate mechanism as soon as possible to relieve the political strains.'

Later, when the tension within the government over European monetary union had risen a notch or two further, Lady Thatcher complains that he was looking for ways of finding allies in Europe and convincing Tory MPs that a constructive approach was being pursued. Again she assumes that spinelessness rather than conviction is the issue: 'But it was already clear that he was thinking in terms of compromises which would not be acceptable to me and that, intellectually, he was drifting with the tide.'

On 5 October 1990, Mr Major got his way, and the pound's entry into the ERM was announced. But by the spring, Lady Thatcher reckoned that he was 'going wobbly' on full monetary union, not because he thought it a good thing, but because he was worried about Britain being isolated within the Community. The Prime Minister begins to think that not only does her Chancellor have a disturbing tendency 'to be defeated by platitudes', but also that, with some urgency, she is going to have to find some way to 'stiffen his resolve and widen his vision'.

If I had read this six months ago, I would have thought, poor old bird, she just can't bring herself to admit that the man she made Chancellor, then backed to succeed her, was a pretty serious European all along, but she couldn't see it because she didn't want to see it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I used to think that as Tory prime ministers go, Mr Major was quite a good thing. Like many other people, I had been affected by his extraordinary charm on first meeting him. Everything I knew about him suggested that he was a good pro-European liberal. His background, his manner, his concerns, his friends, most of all perhaps his enemies, testified to an essential decency.

The Major rhetoric might be flatter than old tonic water and he was a bit wanting on the 'vision thing'. But if you didn't pinch yourself too hard, you could imagine him as a latter-day Baldwin or Attlee: one of those quiet, quintessentially English prime ministers whose strength derives from an

instinctive understanding of ordinary people.

However, after the drift of the past few months and last week's fascinating but rather nasty Conservative Party conference, like Lady Thatcher, I feel puzzled, disappointed, even just a mite contemptuous. Having won his desperate gamble to ratify the Maastricht treaty and with an unambiguously recovering if still fragile economy, we should have seen a prime minister with restored vigour and confidence.

Instead, we have a prime minister who seems willing to wound his enemies with bizarre off-the-record insults, but not to strike decisively at them; who, in contrast to just about every other minister in the Government, has virtually nothing to say about the proper relationship between the state and the individual, beyond the dingy consumerism of the Citizen's Charter; and whose strategy for Europe depends upon the rest of the Community being as exhausted by Maastricht and as frightened of any initiative as he is.

Perhaps the most depressing thing in Blackpool last week was the way in which Mr Major, in his numbing end-of-conference speech, seemed to feel that he has to kowtow to the anti-European irreconcilables and the authoritarian right. The centre and left of the party are becoming increasingly exasperated by his constant tacking, while the right will never again clasp him to its breast.

If the Prime Minister believes that a talent for compromise and an over-abundance of personal charm are the qualities needed to lead his fractious party, he is mistaken. The way he is going, he will end neither loved by his friends nor feared by his foes. A prime minister who knew what he wanted and acted ruthlessly to get it, would have every chance of leading the Tories to a fifth election victory. With each passing day, it seems increasingly improbable that the chameleon, charming Mr Major can become such a prime minister.