There's no trumping Mr Major

Don't blame it on the Prime Minister, blame it on the Cabinet. What kind of strange talk is this? Mr Hare praises the Prime Minister's `extraordinary personal courage'
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"Major goes Concorde to trump Clinton" and "Major plays ID card to trump Blair". That's quite enough trumping for one day's headlines. But some people are like that - they have always to be trumping someone in order to be happy. Most of us remain unthreatened by the idea that Clinton has, on board Air Force One, 88 telephones, several conference rooms, a presidential suite, a medical centre, a rumpus room, a mat for yogic flying, a massage slab and a morgue.

Enviable in themselves as individual items, these objects form a nonsensical ensemble. One might covet a personal aircraft. I can see that. The kind of aeroplane which could land in any old field might be a fun thing to have. A flying doctor's plane might be an enviable possession. Or a microlight - something with an engine no bigger than a lawnmower's, something to fool around in on a windless day.

But a plane equipped with a ballroom, a piano bar, an Olympic swimming pool - this sort of grotesque hybrid, this kind of chimera, does not affect us. If I were to go to meet the President of the United States I should expect him to have something rather over-grand. I should expect him to live up to the legend of his role. Just as, if I were Prime Minister of this country, I should expect to live down to mine. So I would not be mortified if President Clinton invited me on board the "Flying White House" and I discovered it contained not just an Oval Office but a Rose Lawn as well. That would be a part of the kick I would get out of becoming a friend of Bill.

Then I'd invite him back to my plane, and my plane would be a freezing old Hercules, with military-style seats along the side, and I would hand Bill a marvellous old flying jacket and a white china mug of very sweet Camp coffee, and he would say: "Geeze, this is great. You guys really know how to live." And there would be very old dry sandwiches, and real sickbags, and terrible turbulence, and Michael Brunson throwing up further along the fuselage. That would be something for the President to remember.

As it is, Mr Major and his entourage have gone to Washington by Concorde. A futile gesture! How could Mr Major make anything of that? President Clinton is not going to beg to be shown the interior of Concorde. He's not going to want to try the food or "experiment with" the champagne. He's not going to feel trumped. Any more than Tony Blair is going to feel trumped by the Tory promise or threat of ID cards.

I wonder, though, if Mr Blair will feel trumped by the appearance of David Hare among the select ranks of Mr Major's admirers. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, Mr Hare praised the Prime Minister's "extraordinary personal courage", deplored "the sheer nastiness and triviality" of most attacks on him and concluded that "for the first time since I became an adult, I am ruled by a man who appears fundamentally decent and honest. Having a Prime Minister I am not ashamed of is a feeling I like.''

"I am ruled," Mr Hare says. He feels ruled by Mr Major, and he likes this. It's a funny way to talk, isn't it?

Mr Hare is a writer who enjoys being at the centre of controversy. In fact, if a play of his gets just the normal set of mixed reviews, as like as not you will find Mr Hare writing of the "storm of controversy" that has descended on him. In another paper yesterday we were warned that a television series Mr Hare has written, due to be shown next year, "is likely to further strain already tense relations between the broadcast media and politicians" because the series is about the Conservative Party and portrays its leader as "a decent and sympathetic person''.

This assumes, of course, that the Conservative government will last till Channel 4 gets around to screening Mr Hare's new work, and not fall victim to banana-skins, bankruptcies, natural wastage of incumbent MPs, splits, Ireland or other accidents unforeseen. But it also seems to signal a view of the Tory government that sets Mr Major apart from it and its shortcomings. This was the view with which Mr Hare set out yesterday to entertain readers of the Sunday Telegraph.

It is, said Mr Hare, "a convention in politics that you lay whatever misfortunes your country is undergoing at your predecessor's door. Yet faced, for once, with a desperate legacy, John Major found himself saddled with a rare dilemma for any politician today. He is not at liberty to say who was really to blame.'' Why on earth not, one wonders. Mr Hare goes on to explain that the person to blame was Margaret Thatcher. Mr Major is "the essentially decent man who has done nothing except try intermittently to soften [Thatcherism's] most savage effects.''

Amazing when you think about it that this distinction between Thatcherism and Mr Major can be so readily made. Mr Major came to Par- liament under Mrs Thatcher's first government and, after a spell in the Whip's Office, joined the Department of Health and Social Security in 1985. He went on to become Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, before winning the leadership contest as Thatcher's preferred successor. A career, then, as closely woven with Thatcherism as could be. Excepting, it appears, in the eyes of our leading playwright of the left.

Mr Hare goes on: "If, in spite of his great personal qualities, the Tory leader seems hugely unpopular with the public at large, then the blame lies not just with his inheritance but with the calibre of his administration." It is the Cabinet that is at fault - the cabinet ministers who, for instance, screwed up over the closure of the pits, the ones who are treating the Post Office spitefully, or the one who is, in the case of the Health Secretary, ``too cowardly or inept to confront opponents of her plans to destroy some of the best-loved and most admired hospitals in London". It is the members of the Cabinet who get up to these detestable things. All Mr Major can do is try to hold his party together and mitigate the excesses of his subordinates.

Paul Johnson, a recent convert to Tony Blair's leadership qualities, is at least comprehensible in his eccentricity. He likes Mr Blair because he thinks Mr Blair is like Mrs Thatcher. Mr Hare reserves some harsh words for Mr Blair, but not as harsh as that: he thinks Mr Blair is looking backwards. But he likes Mr Major on the deeply eccentric grounds of his not being, in spirit, a member of his own Cabinet.

Mr Johnson is well known to be odd. Mr Hare has become odder than Mr Johnson. Meanwhile the public perception remains pretty well focused - that Mr Major is just more of the same old Tory poison.