The extraordinarily ordinary Mr Major: The Prime Minister's real problem is his own inhibition, says Bruce Anderson

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The Independent Online
TODAY'S policy review meeting at Chequers cannot but touch on the 'vision thing'. This is John Major's greatest problem and a source of constant adverse comparison with his predecessor. Versions of the refrain, 'Say what you like about Maggie - at least she knew where she was going,' can be heard from a million lips, many of them Tory ones.

Such criticisms are based on several false assumptions. The first is that Tory politicians should offer visions. Most of Mrs Thatcher's predecessors would have rejected such a notion with scorn, or horror. The third Marquess of Salisbury was Prime Minister for 13 years; there was no more powerful intellect in British political history. Yet it would be absurd to talk of Salisbury's vision, as opposed to his supremely effective political management.

For generations, the Conservative Party has defeated its opponents by mocking their visionary tendencies and pointing out that the more they fixed their eyes on heaven, the further they stumbled into the mire. The Tory party has always prided itself on being the practical party.

Obviously there was a change under Mrs Thatcher, and her visionary policies made an indispensable contribution. In 1979 the two greatest tasks facing the Government were to revive the animal spirits of the middle classes and to exorcise the spectre of national decline. That needed inspiration as well as action: she provided it.

But Mrs Thatcher's visionary gifts were also misleading; her language often bore no relation to her actions. For 111 2 years, anyone listening to her would have formed a clear impression of her government's goals. But anyone who then examined her record - the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the European Single Act, the steady increases in public spending - would have been mystified, unable to relate the measures to the speeches.

Mrs Thatcher was not a hypocrite or a fraud. She was merely a politician and she, too, had to make compromises and concessions. She also left Mr Major with some enormous unsolved problems, notably Europe and public spending, and with a weakened political position. As historical revisionism is in fashion, this is a good moment to point out that Mrs Thatcher was never a very popular politician. Although she won three elections, she only once narrowly exceeded the 43.4 per cent of the vote with which Sir Alec Douglas- Home lost in 1964. Mrs Thatcher could rouse her own supporters to an unprecedented fervour of loyalty. But there ought to have been more supporters. Political demography was becoming increasingly favourable to the Tories, yet she depended on her opponents' incompetence.

For Mrs Thatcher put a lot of people off. Voters who ought to have become Conservatives were repelled by the narrowness of her social vision. She offered a Britain for the striving and sharp-

elbowed. She had less to offer those who could not identify with triumphant yuppiedom, and never succeeded in translating populism into popularity. That is now Mr Major's task: to broaden the appeal of Thatcherism and build a Tory coalition that is electorally impregnable. He has the gifts to do it.

His very ordinariness is an asset. Traditionally, the British feel comfortable with extraordinary ordinary men and distrust flashy politicians. It took wars to promote Lloyd George and Churchill to No 10 and neither enjoyed much peacetime electoral success; their electorates voted for Baldwin and Attlee. Mr Major must reassure the voters that he has the steel necessary for the premiership, but that should not be difficult, given his record. Few prime ministers have successfully surmounted so many challenges in their first two years in office. He will also benefit from the economic recovery. Mr Major owes his current low standing not to his personality but to the recession. As it lifts, the public will decide he is an able fellow after all.

He could benefit more if he were less reluctant to talk about the classless society. This is easily his best-known phrase, and one which has a resonance with the public, but he himself rarely uses it. The expression surfaced first during the Tory leadership campaign, when one of his aides borrowed it from Mrs Thatcher's last party conference speech. Even then, Mr Major was reluctant to repeat it lest it seem like a dig at Douglas Hurd.

Mr Major is still concerned about the negative aspects. There is a section of the Tory party whose rancorous obsession with class war exceeds anything on the Labour front bench and which will not be happy until the last Old Etonian has been strangled with the entrails of the last Old Harrovian. Mr Major has nothing in common with such characters. His aim is not to attack the classes, but to appeal to the masses. He is trying to persuade everyone in Britain that there are no barriers to their achieving whatever they wish to achieve. Mrs Thatcher had a similar message, but Mr Major can deliver his more effectively for, unlike her, he understands the mentality of those at the bottom of the heap. He can offer encouragement where she had only exhortation.

It seems a long way from the April election victory, but it is a far longer way to the next election. Mr Major has plenty of time to recover his position, and there is hardly anyone in Labour's Shadow Cabinet who does not secretly think that he will do so. But he has more than the capacity to achieve a narrow electoral victory. He has the assets to take a formidable and enduring hold on public opinion.

The author is political columnist of the 'Sunday Express'.