The last testament of a hollow man

The vision thing was never in him. Major offers dull tinkering, a little meanness - an idea-free zone to please Middle England
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This manifesto is the Prime Minister's last will and testament and it bears every hallmark of the Major years, starting with his own picture on the front cover. Waiting for his grand entrance on manifesto day was a time to meditate on that familiar physiognomy, for it will soon be gone.

His lips, through which he squeezes out those near autistic verbal infelicities and lumpen cliches, look even more tightly clenched than before. His so-ordinary face beams with that same unexpected vanity: how often in the past people mistook his modest accomplishments for modesty. In the end, ambition was all that propelled him: now with the party all about him in ruins, it is all that sustains him.

The music stops. Out steps the man. This is not a One Nation campaign, but a One Man campaign: he alone at the podium, his Cabinet not on the platform but relegated to the darkened front row of the press conference. From now on, it is he alone on the soap box, lonely captain of his sinking ship, his rudder snapped, a lone believer that he can still win. For the rest of them it's sauve qui peut, every man for himself with the lifeboats rowing hard for the horizon.

Here in this manifesto, we have the man's own last signature, with all his failings and disappointments intact, the quintessential Major in style, form and lack of content. The vision thing was never in him. Instead he offers a little dull tinkering, a little meanness (though nothing savage), more of the same on every front - an idea-free zone tailored to please (but not enough) the selfish instincts of his lost Middle England. His demise will not reach the great tragic heights of the fall of the House of Thatcher: in this manifesto he departs with a whimper.

Looking back, there is disappointment, oh yes, for I was among those who welcomed his victory as leader with some enthusiasm. When the cacophony and constant revolution of the Thatcher years over-reached itself and the Iron Lady was laid low by hubris, the sight of plain, ordinary John was welcome balm. Here at last came a sane, pragmatic type to operate the trains and drains. His very verbal incapacity, I thought, bode well, delivering us from the high flown rhetoric and the dangerous religious fervour of both left and right during the Eighties. John the Bank Manager would suit us well, do the nuts and bolts and let everyone else get on with the more important things in life - work, children, love, art, sport, whatever. More than that, he made two good promises: he would put Britain "at the heart of Europe" and give us a classless society. "A nation at ease with itself" was a delightful phrase, the only seductive words of his entire career, healing and reassuring.

What is left of all that now? A country further at the edge of Europe with a populace which has been dangerously and deliberately mislead on that key issue in cynical pursuit of electoral gain. At ease with itself? No, a nation more divided between haves and have-nots than at any time this century: Three times more people truly poor; the poor actually poorer, and the rich much richer. The grosser tax gains and bonuses of the fat cats offend even those without a shred of socialism in them. At the same time the abject poverty of millions spills out to frighten those who have done well, the majority who should and could be enjoying the 33 per cent real gains of the past 18 years if only they felt better about it.

Here is a country so uneasy with itself that it does not even trust the colour of the money the present boom has put into its pockets or the glowing economic indicators flashing up on its screens. Sleaze stories and family values hypocrisy might have been shrugged off by an electorate less filled with distaste for the politics of the Nineties. For the conviction politics of the Eighties were not replaced by a new efficient managerial era, but by a time of no conviction about anything, cynicism in high places, so value-free it was blown off course by any puff of contrary wind. The moral of John Major's fate is that leadership matters more than the pork barrel.

So how does his last testament read? Its prose and its promises are as elevating as the prospectus of a building society about to float on the Stock Exchange. Low bribes and enticements offer large sums to those with most money, smaller sums for small savers, nothing at all for those with nothing. It's the old True Blue war-cry, "To them that hath shall be given!" If, that is, you are inclined to believe it, for here is a measure of fantasy finance to take your breath away. Captain Major is leaning over the edge of his tilting ship waving worthless IOUs to anyone who will save him.

The manifesto's Big Idea is small and dishonest. This same government which halved the married couples allowance now gives some of it back. Worth some pounds 18 a week to two million couples, it will go to very few of the poorest working people and the richest will benefit most. It is a feeble sop to family values, excluding the one third of children not living in married households. If the aim was to help those struggling to care for children and invalids, increasing carers' benefits and children's social security would have done the trick.

For the rest, the manifesto is thinly packaged with old ideas. Schools will be prodded into more local management, and more housing estates will be handed over to housing association or private hands (a policy which has signally failed through many previous attempts to get it right). The promise on insurance to cover care in old age is either far too expensive or worthless. The promise to cut inheritance and capital gains tax is a large gift to the very rich. The promise to reduce income tax to 20p will do nothing for the six million poorest employees.

The manifesto blazons the Government's "Golden Bequest" - economic success that is indeed impressive. It ought to be dazzling enough to win a thundering great majority for any government. Why isn't it? Because in the end, money isn't everything. The writing of this manifesto shows how little John Major has understood the scale and reasons for his failure, how little he ever grasped the writing on the wall.