Trench warfare behind the hysterical headlines

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The Independent Online
IS THIS a dying administration? Is John Major finished? Or has he hardly started? Even if you are a subtle and voracious consumer of the media it is hard to gauge the seriousness of what is going on. A senior minister complained to me recently about a lack of discrimination, of shades of grey, in political reporting - every day brought spurious disasters and equally transient triumphs. I have to confess, as a sometimes-guilty party, that he was right.

A case in point: this week, the Government was defeated in a Maastricht Bill division on representation to the new European Committee of the Regions. Mr Major had been told, days before, that this was virtually inevitable. Weeks ago, the ministers involved had predicted it (and their prediction was reported). Months ago, in the autumn, the extra days of Commons argument that this defeat has triggered had already been pencilled in by the Government business managers. It was not, in short, a big surprise.

Mr Major would have preferred to prevent it, naturally, hence the ministerial onslaught against the Tory rebels. Last week, the Tory whips had come close to doing a deal with the smaller opposition parties to prevent it, but English Liberal Democrat demands had stymied that. Even so, we are talking small potatoes.

Yet almost everyone in the media leapt around yelling, Humiliation] The Sun told us: 'A KNIFE IN MAJOR'S HEART: Euro dream is in tatters]' That was utter nonsense, widely repeated elsewhere. The Times, in its later editions, failed even to explain what the Labour amendment had been about: 'humiliation' was the only word that mattered.

This is partly the fault of the Government itself. In order to make life more torrid for rebels, it hyped the damaging effects of their rebellion - to that extent, the interests of the whips and the headline writers coincide. But it paints a misleading picture of the state of the political game. There are more Maastricht defeats to come; in a world defined by banner headlines, how is the average voter supposed to work out whether they matter, and if so, how much they matter?

One more example - a wholly absurd one. Michael Portillo (Spanish-blooded Thatcherite with deep doubts about the EC) lunches in the Commons with Bryan Gould (Labour anti-Maastrichtian and notorious New Zealander). Ah hah, responds the press: 'treachery backstabbing Europlot PM livid' (I summarise). Just what is going on here? Is this some kind of third-rate police state where two political opponents can't lunch together without hysterical headlines?

Behind the hysteria, the real story of Conservative politics in the early Nineties is the race between economic recovery and political decay. There is a finishing line, around late 1995 or early 1996, by when ministers expect the next election.

Most of them think the recovery is clearly under way, though they hide their glee: triumphalism now would sound particularly stupid and heartless to the employees waiting for their P45s in next week's post. Either by coincidence, or because they have been talking about it, a clutch of cabinet men give the same figure for the majority they expect to win then - about 60 seats.

To most of the country, this probably sounds like wild hubris. And it is entirely possible that the Major government is suffering from a haemorrhage of authority so debilitating that it will be unable to profit from economic recovery: that political decay will win the race, and put Labour in.

It will look that way for a few months yet. There will be further embarrassments over Maastricht before the Bill passes into law. On 6 May, we can expect some dreadful local election performances by the Conservatives, and probably the loss of the Newbury by-election, too. Right up to the summer, Mr Major will rarely appear to be a convincing leader. Labour's parliamentary strategy is to use Maastricht and the Tory split to conduct a months-long war of attrition, exhausting him, delaying other legislation and chipping away at the Government's morale.

Eventually, John Smith and Paddy Ashdown will let Mr Major have his Bill: but they want to wound him repeatedly first. They want as dispirited and worn-down a prime minister as they can achieve. This is what is really going on down Westminster way. This is what the Government's supporters mean when they talk about Tory rebels playing Labour's game; and this is why the attitude of Number 10 towards Labour and the rebels is becoming more bitter by the day. This is trench warfare, the result to be determined by stamina rather than courage or imagination. So far, the Opposition's strategy, however blunt, is working rather well.

Once Maastricht is finally put aside, can Mr Major stop the rot? Can, of course. Will? We'll see. Certainly, he will need to become tougher with Thatcherite disloyalists, plainer-spoken and readier to risk. The vast rise in public borrowing is the single biggest policy threat, though it is hard to see how rail privatisation will be accomplished without infuriating commuters. Alongside such running sores there will be the usual tests of the Prime Minister's crisis management skills - riots, resignations and rogue ministers.

The race between recovery and the strength of a bleeding Conservative administration will be a long-distance affair, probably continuing up hill and down dale for another three years, a race whose progress is more likely to be obscured than revealed by the daily diet of hysteria.

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