The Butcher of Whitehall has a blunt knife

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IT WAS hard to read, that smile on the face of Michael Portillo, as he sat, chin up, arms folded, listening to John Major assure the House of Commons that no nasty cuts to public spending had been agreed. A rueful smile? A smile of defiance? An embarrassed smile? Perhaps we'd better settle for a sphinx-like smile.

But it cannot have been pleasant for the Thatcherite Chief Secretary to the Treasury to hear Mr Major gabbling reassurance about public spending cuts. Mr Portillo was merely considering options: 'He has not yet considered those options . . . No decisions have been made. They will not be made till the public expenditure round in the autumn. Many will then be discarded . . .'

Got that, everybody? No decisions. None. Not a decisionette, a decisionini or the merest suspicion of the whiff of a shadow of a decision.

That hadn't been Mr Portillo's message. Where Mr Major had cooed reassuringly, his underling had been like the servant in the old children's song, standing by the duckpond and rasping: 'Hey diddle, diddle, diddle, come and be killed, For you must stuffed . . .'

Perhaps even that had been too homely for what the Chief Secretary was trying to convey. The Butcher of Whitehall had sounded truly revolutionary in his determination to court unpopularity. Like some implacable Robespierre of public spending, urged on by the last Jacobins of Thatcherism, he had promised 'eternal vigilance, seeking out those elements . . . that no longer relate to today's priorities. The prospect does not frighten me. The threats posed by excessive spending and borrowing are serious. It is our duty to hide nothing . . .'

The relish in his voice had been unmistakable: in a distant courtyard you could hear the cleansing blade being whetted. And the need for financial Terror is not in doubt. The pounds 50bn deficit is unsupportable. The ancien regime of middle-class perks and state benefits provides an obvious target. Even the placatory Mr Major promises only to protect the 'most vulnerable'. Even he warns that people 'above the poorest level . . . will make the principal contribution'.

So finger your collars, mortgage-holders. Say your prayers, you affluent pensioners. Snivel, you pampered recipients of child allowance payments. The tumbrils of Maximilien Portillo, rigorous and incorruptible, are rumbling. Did someone say 'classless society'?

Except that it won't happen, not this side of the general election. However harsh the Treasury rhetoric, this government is too weak, and perhaps too divided, to cut deeply into middle-class perks or sweep away swathes of the social security budget. However aggressive its language, the Government's actions tell a different story. Its current posture is retreat - retreat on testing, unit fines and benefit payments through post offices.

Yes, the deficit is unsupportable for long. Ministers will borrow, and cut at the margins, and raise charges and perhaps extend VAT again. We might see one bold decision, one nearly lost parliamentary vote. But the Terror? With a majority of 19? Give over. Mr Major accurately accused Mr Smith of scaremongering. Accurately, because Mr Major is not in the position to do anything remotely scary.

And if Mr Portillo was mildly embarrassed by Mr Major's tone in the Commons, he would be mortified to hear what some senior ministers are saying about him. There are voices who insist, rightly, that the debate about public spending needs to be reopened, and that this is the last year in which a really tough package can be taken through. Almost everyone agrees that the extent of the middle- class welfare state will eventually have to be challenged. There were some Thatcherites who were gleeful that a minister had, for once, spoken harsh truths. Some of yesterday's Maastricht rebels would dearly love to be

tomorrow's loyalists, voting for deep public spending cuts.

But most of the big-spending ministers and centrist Tory MPs were openly derisive about the timing and content of the Portillo initiative. They thought he had goofed. Others speculated about deeper motives: Mr Portillo knew that big cuts now were not practical politics, but he was putting down a marker; he knew Mr Major's administration was too weak to do the necessary; he knew that without tough measures to control spending, it would lose its last vestige of purpose. Its drift would be terminal. And when, one way or another, the Major regime collapsed, Portillo the Incorruptible would be there to point the moral and gather supporters.

While this is an intriguing thought, I suspect it is too conspiracist, even for the post-Thatcherites. There is a genuine tension between what principled ministers believe ought to be done and what they know can be done. This is a weak government, perpetually testing the limits of its strength. Its ministers are still unused to their weakness; they think and speak like masters of a huge majority. They have not found a tone that rings true with the electorate, that combines purposefulness with humility.

No longer can they posture with impunity. Mr Major, the Chancellor and Mr Portillo can find cuts and raise funds, can perhaps do both without splitting their party. But it will require the slow and inglorious search for a Tory consensus. Failure to do that will mean Commons defeats that will destroy any vestige of government authority. If Mr Major was a little irritated with his minister's enthusiasm, then, for once, we can sympathise. Mr Major's emollience was inevitable. And that Portillo smile? It ought to have been one of contrition.