So farewell then, John Major, man of shadows

Grey, hollow and lacking in vision till the end - history will not be kind to the Prime Minister after his six years in power

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We were gathered together in the sight of The Voter for the last time to bid farewell to our Prime Minister - a requiem for his passing. He is not much of a churchgoer, but looking up the relevant words of the Book of Common Prayer, I wondered if pausing in the wings for yesterday's press conference he might murmur, "Lord, let me know mine end and the number of my days that I may be certified how long I have to live." Or perhaps, "Deliver me from mine offences and make me not a rebuke unto the foolish."

This was the last of some 120 morning press conferences for all three parties. Here we were at the very end, so might he give us a sign, a word, something to move us a little? But no. How like the man to leave us with nothing, no last-minute inspiration, no sudden lifting of his game just as the light fades. No, there was no hint of tragedy at his fall - the birds still sang.

The man has a limitless ability to disappoint. Who knows, perhaps tomorrow when it's all over and far too late, at last he will find words to touch us, words to match the occasion. But probably not, certainly nothing as magnificent as Margaret Thatcher's hot tears of outrage as she left Downing Street for the last time.

History will not be kind to John Major. Our children in 50 years' time will scratch their heads and try to remember who came in the fallow years between Thatcher and Blair. What was his name? What did he do? Yet the remarkable fact remains that this mediocre man, devoid of vision, has indeed held on to power for six long years. Not much loved and much mocked, when he speaks now we see Rory Bremner blinking, more real than the shadowy man himself.

How did John Major do it? He was a mainstay of the Thatcher years; hardly a poll tax protester, yet when the blame was handed out he wasn't there. When his ministers signed papers to let innocent businessmen go to jail for selling arms to Iraq, he wasn't there either, not him. Honest John was Slippery John. Sleaze? He knew nothing. Unsavoury funds for his party? No one told him. Sacrifice Britain's interests abroad for the sake of appeasing the lunatic right? Of course not. Whip up dangerous Europhobia in the electorate in the vain hope of victory? That's politics. But it was he who took us into the ERM, and he who fell so ignominiously out of it: he never could dodge that mighty knock-out blow, and his poll ratings never recovered.

No, he wasn't Honest John, or Mr Nice Guy, but he was lucky. And despite his lumbering verbal infelicity, he had the footwork of a mountain goat. Only the deep rift in his party kept him in office, dividing and ruling. Standing with a foot on either side of a widening crevasse is a well-known posture for retaining power - each side hating him a little less than the enemy. But it is neither a dignified nor glorious role for the history books, as Harold Wilson's reputation shows. There will be precious little sentimentalising at his wake.

The past six weeks have been a long deathwatch. The grey man pinned his hopes on making the people love him: instead he has been stripped bare, with the polls hardly nudging since the first day.

Why? Because in the end the cameras do not lie. Night after night we have seen him and his party flounder in the harsh glare of the television lights. And voters have not liked what they have seen: a party riven by a multitude of candidates bribed by a businessman to disobey their leaders and print their own rebellious anti-European manifestos. A leader who could not escape 18 years of blame for everything anyone thinks is wrong with anything. A leader who embraced sleaze personified when he endorsed Neil Hamilton. And Labour's well-aimed hammer blows of 22 Tax Rises prevented any last chance of another Double Whammy fight-back. The man never stood a chance.

If the evil that men do lives after them, the charges against Major are legion: the deepening divide between the poor and the rest, the galloping greed of the rich, the odour of corruption in the air and the humiliation he has inflicted on us by his behaviour abroad.

But lest we inter the shreds of good with his bones, there was one moment in the campaign - only one - when John Major reached for something better, a rare and tantalising glimpse of the leader some of us once thought he could be. It was that day in mid-campaign when at last he faced down his own revolting candidates and put as neat and eloquent a case as anyone has ever made for why we might want to join the single currency. It was an act of bravery, firmness and, yes, a little passion - all the things his leadership has lacked. Now, at this eleventh hour, would the man come into his own? No, it was only the flash of a firecracker, not the kindling of a fire. But it was a sad reminder that in his very first days there was a chance that he might become the great healer of Thatcherite abrasions, a good manager, a good European, the classless one-nation leader who now sounds so hollow.

For Labour, the dark years are over. Even now Prince Hal is casting off the shabby and unprincely clothes required for fighting general elections. Early tomorrow morning he will step out in his true guise into a world that is his oyster. He can be anything that he wants to be, and now we wait to see what that is. He travels so light, with a majority so great, that he has no excuse for failing.

How easy it should be for him to shine over the bleached bones of this dead regime. How easy to eclipse John Major in an instant, our undear departed leader: "The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away: blessed is the name of the Lord."

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