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SOMETIMES stating the obvious can seem like bad taste. Here goes: John Smith's death has gifted the Government its last chance for a fresh start. The Prime Minister had already, according to friends, made a personal decision to 'see it through': his talk about there being life outside politics has recently stilled. Out of the spotlight for a change, senior ministers are in reflective mood. There is the opportunity, to put it no higher, for a turning-point in Tory fortunes this summer. The question is, can they seize it?

The best place to start is to remind ourselves what the Government is already doing: a lot. There is the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail coming soon, something too radical for the Countess of Compromise, Margaret Thatcher. There is, as we report today, a White Paper in the pipeline containing plans for a drastic shake- up of the Civil Service. Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine have their teeth into this, with William Waldegrave holding the ring and Douglas Hurd reminding them of the dangers of 'permanent revolution'.

Then there is Mr Heseltine's competitiveness White Paper. Whatever that says, it ought to spark a national debate because industrial policy seems to be edging towards support for the big companies that can survive in the global market. Export or die, is the President's motto. Fine, but this robust commercial Darwinism conflicts with the interventionism required by the domestic competition and consumer lobby. Behind the dry prose of mandarins we can hear the clash of different visions of market capitalism.

In transport policy, there are equally momentous changes - a slow but unmistakeable shift away from an unqualified acceptance of 'the great car economy'. In local government policy, there's a similar story, since ministers are questioning some of yesterday's more prejudiced centralising assumptions. The operation of the Child Support Agency, and the latest furore about seat-belts, are other current issues causing serious difficulties for ministers keen both to intervene and to deregulate - to use government (or, to put it pejoratively, red tape) to change people's behaviour, while remaining Tory anti-statists.

In most of these cases there is serious thinking, by serious people, and evidence of some political courage. But there is also a real intellectual conflict. To be interesting in politics, as the British right remains, is not necessarily to be successful. And nowhere is

more interesting currently than the Foreign Office. The immediate issue there remains the navigation of the European election campaign - hence some recent irritation at the outspokenness of the Europhile Chancellor Clarke.

But further ahead, there is serious work going on about reshaping and strengthening Europe's system of defence. Like the inclusiveness or otherwise of the European Union itself, this is a debate that needs to happen. No other politicians are gripping the question with the tenacity of Tory ministers. Yet the debate is not being heard clearly. Why? Because it opens up contradictions on the right that are even more glaring than on domestic policy.

One could go on. But if you look across Whitehall, you can find the same pattern. This is not an administration that is running out of ideas - far from it - or that is shrinking from the real world. But it is one that lacks philosophical coherence. It is a government wrestling with its doubts about the role of government, atop a state unsure of its status. The effect of this confusion is far from airy- fairy, since it prevents any clear message reaching the rest of the country. It explains a paradox, which is that a government buzzing with activity should manage to convey such a strong impression of drift, of simply hanging about waiting for the sun. No wonder ministers are puzzled.

What is missing? The word is integrity. Not integrity as in honesty - these are almost all honest people, as well as serious ones. But integrity as in wholeness, entireness, philosophical direction. And that comes straight back to the leadership question, since integrity must flow from the top. It must be imposed, by an act of will, and communicated by acts of language. The Thatcher administrations were just as full of contradictions as the present one. But she conveyed an irresistible sense of forward movement: the confusions were drowned out by the strident integrity of 'Thatcherism'.

This question of integrity, of direction, matters more than reshuffles, advisers, even backbench discipline. It comes first. Without it, political decay is inevitable; with it, all is possible. If Mr Major can find it within him to tell the country a simple story about what his government is about, then the heaving mass of ministerial initiatives might suddenly seem impressive, rather than merely confusing.

Can he do that? He has had plenty of chances before, and exploited none of them. He has lacked consistency, on small issues as on great. (His calls for less strident politics were welcome, but we have heard them before, and he hasn't followed his own advice.) He is a details man. He has only rarely found words that made the country to pause and listen.

But maybe, just maybe, as the political storm drops for a while, he can still surprise us - change his tone and raise his game. If he can, he better had, for by the autumn he may again find himself facing simple, coherent Labour messages. The likelihood of a Tory leadership crisis over the next couple of months has abated, but the party's choices are no less stark. The leader can change. Or the leader can be changed. Or, sooner or later, the Government will be.

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