Stay where you are, Mr Major: Robert Skidelsky believes the Prime Minister is quite justified in sticking to his guns

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IT IS being said that the forthcoming local and European elections will be a 'referendum' on John Major's leadership, and that if the Conservatives do badly in either or both, he will 'have to go'. Media malice and Conservative Party panic tend to infect each other, so it is hard to know how widely this opinion is held. But even views based on froth can suddenly seem irresistible. So a cool assessment of the argument is in order.

Mr Major has said he will 'go when people least expect it and on my own terms'. There are three excellent reasons for him to stick to that resolution.

The first may be called constitutional. The prime minister in this country is not directly elected, as is the French or American president. People vote for parties, not for leaders. Nevertheless, when they vote they are influenced by who leads the parties. Two years ago John Major led his party to a stunning victory against the odds. The Conservatives received a mandate to govern for five years. It is absurd to pretend that Mr Major was not an important part of the package the voters bought. They warmed to his courage, his decency, even his diffidence.

No one would claim that an election victory gives a prime minister the right to govern for five years. A governing party must seek to put itself into the best position to win the next election. That may require 'dropping the pilot'. But this should not be done with indecent haste. In fact, winning parties have always taken their leader's mandate to govern extremely seriously. Margaret Thatcher was the first incumbent prime minister to be deposed by her party (though Anthony Eden might have been had he not resigned because of ill-health), and this was nearly three-and-a-half years into her third term.

To lose one prime minister in a moment of panic might be considered a misfortune; to lose two on the trot would start to look like carelessness. It would certainly cast doubt on the Conservative Party's steadiness under fire.

It is true that Conservative Party leaders, whether in government or opposition, have always seemed more vulnerable to press coups than their Labour Party counterparts. This is curious for a party that prides itself on its loyalty. It is probably because most newspapers support the Conservative Party. Indeed, they are part of the party's internal politics. For this reason, Conservative politicians take their opinions far more seriously than do Labour politicians.

Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative leader who perhaps most closely resembles John Major, was under constant attack from the Beaverbrook- Rothermere press of his day. As Leader of the Opposition, he turned memorably on his tormentors in 1930, just before a crucial by-election. He accused the press barons of aiming at 'power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages'. John Major might take a leaf out of his book. Stanley Baldwin remained leader of the Conservative Party for 14 years, and retired in his own good time.

The second reason for not making a panic change in leadership is that it would not solve the problems of the Conservative Party. John Major did not cause them; he inherited them. The Conservative Party is deeply split over Europe. This is not John Major's fault; it is a fact of life. The European issue more than the poll tax brought down Margaret Thatcher, the most masterful prime minister of modern times. Mr Major was elected her successor because he promised to unite his party by being a 'good European' while continuing his predecessor's opposition to federalism and Brussels bureaucracy. It was a difficult hand to play, and he has played it skilfully, on no occasion more so than when he succeeded in negotiating opt- outs for Britain on the single currency and the Social Chapter in the Maastricht treaty.

Opt-outs scarcely amount to a robust, or even coherent, European strategy. On Europe Mr Major has often given the impression of speaking with several voices, but it is hard to see that the state of British politics has given him much choice. His one strategic mistake was not to hold a referendum after the passage of the legislation on the Maastricht treaty, as Harold Wilson did in similar circumstances in 1975 over whether Britain should continue as a member of the EEC. His general election victory of 1992 cannot be interpreted as a 'mandate for Maastricht', especially as all the political parties supported the treaty.

Whether Mr Major had won or lost a referendum, he would have had the authority to conduct a rational European policy. As it is, he is constrained by the fissures in his party to supply a braking mechanism, but never a stimulus, to what happens across the Channel. But would any other leader be able to do better?

The final reason for not being panicked into change is that Mr Major's current unpopularity is only to a small extent personal. All the main European leaders are unpopular and for the same reason: they are beset by problems of economic stagnation and social distress for which there are no quick remedies. The 'feel good' factor that contributes so mightily to the popularity of political leaders is universally absent. But Mr Major cannot be blamed for the fact that European unemployment stands at almost 12 per cent. In fact, as a result of the reforms of the Eighties, Britain is less afflicted by 'Eurosclerosis' than France or Germany, and so better placed to recover than they are.

Beyond this, the search is on for a viable political formula to replace the shattered post-war settlement. Thatcherism made an essential contribution by cutting the coils that were strangling enterprise, innovation, initiative. Still more cutting remains - in housing and education, for example. But the process was traumatic, and left a great deal of economic wreckage and social sourness. Important elements of civic society such as the family have to be reconstituted; a more modest, but more effective, role for government in the economy has to be defined; new sources of patriotism must be tapped in a world that has moved beyond the simplicities of the Cold War.

What is required is not a new leader, but new thought. Politicians rarely invent ideas; they use them. Their performance is generally as effective as the thinking of the time allows. John Major has the right combination of instincts for today's world. It would be folly to sack the singer, when what is needed is better tunes.

Lord Skidelsky is professor of political economy at Warwick University, and chairman of the Social Market Foundation.

(Photograph omitted)