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WILL THE defendant please stand? You have been convicted of grave and heinous crimes. Hundreds of innocent Conservative councillors have been slaughtered in Scotland. South of the border, thousands more fear for their political lives: this court has heard evidence from distinguished professors who have consulted their computers and swing tables and can predict that, after next month's local elections, your party will be left in control of fewer than 20 councils in the whole of the United Kingdom. If you remain at large, they say, no Tory in the land can be safe.

Before we pass sentence, however, it is only right to consider the case made on your behalf. The court has heard from character witnesses, including, to some people's surprise, David Hare, the left-wing playwright. He has described you as "fundamentally decent and honest", a prime minister he is not ashamed of. In his view, you have been led astray by the company you keep - "a Cabinet that regularly beggars belief". Then there is Stewart Steven, editor of the London Evening Standard, who argues, as people often do in the miscreant's favour, that society is to blame. "No British politician in this country," he wrote last week, "has been made subject to quite such a barrage of vicious abuse." (But we are compelled to observe that you yourself have frequently said that we should condemn a little more, understand a little less.) Finally, we have heard from Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, who offers as a mitigating factor that according to opinion polls - which politicians normally say we should ignore, but we will let that pass - you are more popular than your party.

What does all this add up to? Your Government, it has been argued, has two great achievements to its credit. The first is the economy: we have growth, healthy exports, falling (though still intolerably high) unemployment and low inflation. This is a rare combination for Britain. Much of the odium you suffer is the result of your failure to divert any of the gains to the middle classes. The recession of the early 1980s hit the traditional heavy industries of the North hardest. This time, stockbrokers, bank employees, middle managers and all sorts of other professional groups are still beset by insecurity and job losses. At the same time, your Government has weakened the basis of much middle-class wealth by failing to stoke another bout of house price inflation. On the contrary, you have wilfully restrained the housing market by limiting mortgage interest tax relief. But this can hardly be held against you. The left has criticised tax relief on mortgages as an unjustifiable perk for the well-off, the right has attacked it as an unjustifiable distortion of the market. You are to be congratulated for being more radical and more courageous on this matter than Margaret Thatcher ever was.

Your second achievement is a peace in Ulster which has lasted several months. Here, your vices have turned into virtues. You fudge issues; you lean first this way, then the other; you allow people of quite opposite interests to think that, if they stick with you, they have something to gain or, perhaps, less to lose. All this has worked well in Ulster. Both sides are suspicious; but you seem so malleable that everybody thinks they can exploit you to their advantage.

But this, alas, is not a formula for a good prime minister. The central puzzle of the past three years is that, though almost everybody agrees on your own decency, your administration is associated to an unprecedented extent with sleaze and scandal. Mr Hare and Mr Steven think this misfortune. The court cannot agree. You fail to set standards and goals. You seem to have no aim beyond keeping the show on the road and staying in power. On Europe, the most important issue of the day, your sole endeavour is to keep all the warring factions in your party happy. The court, therefore, cannot accept pleas of diminished responsibility or mitigating circumstances. You have already been on probation many times; you have repeatedly promised to mend your ways, to undertake what your friends call a re-launch or a re-assertion of your authority. All to no effect. You, and your party, are sentenced to face the contempt of the voters and to lose the next election.

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