The mantra from the bunker

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JOHN MAJOR's sun-drenched press conference in the garden of Number 10 yesterday afternoon was a funny business. The Prime Minister had no information of great moment to communicate. Yes, these had been 'very poor' results on a 'frankly derisory' turnout. Yes, there would be a reshuffle in a few weeks' time. No, he wasn't going to change any policies. No, he hadn't changed his mind on anything. No, he wasn't going to go.

The only hard policy announcement was surreally minor. Mr Major informed us that 'going round the country' he had found great concern about the way Parliament operated and would thus seek to implement the Jopling report on procedural reform by the summer recess. This is a worthy aim no doubt. But it is hard to believe that millions of disaffected Tory voters are going about the land muttering: 'I ain't voting for 'em this time. Not until they do something about them long hours MPs work, and the timetabling of parliamentary business.'

Below the surface, however, there were messages to be read. First, Mr Major was simply saying to his media tormentors: 'Look guys - still standing.' Second, he was claiming credit for his consistency and long-termism. Dogged does it. Election disasters might come and go, but he wouldn't be deflected.

This message is at the core of his claim to Number 10. So what is its substance? It is perfectly true that Mr Major has stuck consistently to his low-inflation ambitions. It is also the case that he is personally resilient and that the British admire courage. But that's about it. On macro-economic policy, he was blown out of the exchange rate mechanism and was partly responsible for a splurge in government spending which has caused economic pain ever since. He sought to take credit for the recovery yesterday, having sturdily refused to accept any blame for the recession.

Taxes? Enough said. His European policy has changed too - do you recall hearing about the 'multi-speed' Europe during the 1992 election campaign? He can blame 'events', but even in small matters there have been noticeable shifts. His claim to be a caring Conservative has been eroded in office, not least by his outburst against beggars, rightly described by one former Tory admirer recently as 'nauseating'.

What, then, does his unique Conservative vision currently amount to? Low inflation and management reform for the public sector just about sums it up. Oh, there is a little residual privatisation here, the odd piece of timid social engineering there. But this Government, just as much as Churchill's notorious pudding, lacks a theme.

Now people are running about calling for tax cuts. Mr Major showed a little ankle on that too, yesterday, insisting that in due course 'our instinct will be to cut them'. At current income tax rates, however, further cuts would be seen as a short-term tactic, not a serious policy. It is hard to argue that they are any longer a serious impediment to Britain's economic performance or that, at 40 per cent for the top rate, income tax demotivates managers. Given the state of the public finances, it would be fatuous anyway and irresponsible to cut taxes soon.

I believe the Chancellor will cut direct taxes for lower and middle- income Britain by the time of the next election, but now is far too early, both for the economy and for any possible political gain. It is not even clear that such a tactic would work yet again. The recovery years may, as in 1964, persuade voters that they can 'afford' to take a chance on Labour.

Does this add up to a message

of Tory doom? Not quite. While there's office, there's hope; and Mr Major's jibes at the pollsters yesterday, delivered with some feeling, were perfectly fair. There are some strong Tory cards left, such as education. Despite John Patten's poor press, his department is the only one currently holding its position in the polls against the Opposition.

But the more one ponders Mr Major's strategic position, the worse it seems. In an almost poignant moment yesterday, he advised Tony Blair not to believe what people said about him now - nor what they would say about him in 18 months' time. Niceties aside, what remains for the Tories is hard, attacking politics, and the lines of assault on the likely Labour leader - vacuous, a youthful media confection, a pretty nonentity - are already being tested out by everyone from Spitting Image to Daily Mail leader writers. 'Tony Blur'. . . 'Bambi'. . . 'The Blair bubble' - they will all quickly migrate from the pages of Tory tabloids to the mouths of Tory ministers.

Good propaganda works only if there is a grain of truth in it. The truth is that Mr Blair is a tough, convinced and consistent politician; but it is also true that there is less between him and the Conservative establishment on macro-economics than socialists will find comfortable. The first-past-the-post system, with its concentration on uncommitted voters in swing constituencies, does tend to make political rivals bunch together as they pursue the same electoral quarry.

It is, however, richly comic to find conservative commentators already going all sentimental over the merits of John Prescott and even Ken Livingstone. You've got to hand it to them (apparently), these are real conviction politicians. The subtext, which it wouldn't strain a subnormal sheep to decode, is that they are electoral liabilities. Aah - we all love the Labour Party, respect it even, just so long as they stick by their old, losing, ways.

We will, therefore, soon see the emergence of an impressive-looking but spurious consensus, to the effect that Mr Blair and his admirers need to come up with some 'hard, socialist' policies. What is meant by that? By and large, government pump-priming, financed by higher taxation and borrowing, to speed up the economic recovery and cut unemployment more quickly. Never mind that the global market renders this a self-defeating strategy, whether practised at national or European level. Neo- Keynesianism will be urged on Labour by the left because it has no other answers, and it will be urged by the right, because it comes with taxes attached and would be electorally destructive. Will 'Tony Blur' resist such blandishments? Depend upon it. As he does so, he will come into focus.

There are probably at least two years of turbulent politics before the next general election. Life confounds the forecaster, just as elections confound the pollster. But looking at the fundamentals of political policy and strategy confirms the immediate impression, rather than refuting it. The Government is in a terrible hole. As Mr Major promised he would stay on, the loudspeaker system rigged up in the Downing Street garden broadcast the news to some workmen nearby. Their raucous laughter could be heard within.

(Photograph omitted)