When the wind blew, he bent: John Major resolved to save himself, not his principles. Anthony Bevins explains how the Prime Minister revealed he is just another politician

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The Independent Online
John Major was always fond of revealing the golden thread that ran through his career, his progress across the Thames from Brixton to Downing Street: 'I have yet to make a strategic decision which proved to be wrong,' he used to tell friends, with justified pride.

Having attributed his rise to innate skill rather than luck, Mr Major can hardly turn round today and suggest he has been unlucky. Wednesday exposed him as a politician, like so many others, who can blunder and then bend to events. The man who declared himself resolutely committed to principles of economic probity has been bowed and humbled. He is no different from the rest.

Margaret Thatcher, despite all the mythology, was not averse to compromise; to step back from dogma when it suited her. To hear her speak now, you would scarcely believe that it was she who guillotined the Single European Act through the Commons, nor that she was standing at Mr Major's side when he announced that the time was 'ripe' to go into the ERM in October 1990.

But Mr Major made himself out to be different; spelt out the revulsion he felt for the pollution of post-war politics.

Launching his election campaign at the Conservative Central Council in Torquay on 14 March, Mr Major said: 'I don't want a little bit of inflation. I don't want a modicum of inflation. I want an end to inflation . . . I know the fear, the despair, that inflation brings to everyday lives - the raw misery when the bills at the end of the week are bigger than the pay packet, or when the value of savings melts like snow in spring. Inflation is a curse. We've got to beat it. We've got to get prices stable - and do everything we can to keep them there.' The battle against inflation was his paramount economic objective.

After Mr Major had taken sterling into the exchange rate mechanism at the central rate of DM2.95 to the pound two years ago, he told the Commons: 'A firm exchange rate is a vital part of our policy to maintain tight monetary conditions in order to reduce inflation.'

There was more to it than that. Mr Major told David Frost on TV-am on 5 April: 'If you're prepared to let the exchange rate fall . . . you suck in inflation. You get lower interest rates today and the price is higher inflation tomorrow. And what happens when you get higher inflation? You have to put the interest rates straight back up again. It's exactly the sort of short- term economic problem that has led us into boom and bust, boom and bust, boom and bust right the way through since the war. And I've had enough of that.'

But this pride came before the fall in the pound and the reversal of a policy to which the Prime Minister had nailed businesses, homeowners and the many thousands who lost their jobs as a result of recession.

The image of the politician who made his reputation as a man of high and unbending principle was erased by the debacle of Wednesday's 'triple whammy': the temporary hike in interest rates, departure from the exchange rate mechanism, the effective devaluation of the pound.

So how did the Prime Minister square the circle? After every member of the Cabinet had sworn an individual oath of loyalty and devotion to the hapless Chancellor, Mr Major told them yesterday: 'You have expressed your strong support for the Chancellor's decision. There was no dissent from that view. There has been a strong welcome for the cut in interest rates to 10 per cent and there is no dispute over the fundamentals of economic policy, in particular the need to continue the fight against inflation.'

Hang on. Fighting inflation, yes, was the paramount purpose of all the blood, sweat and tears of recent years. But was not the ERM the bulwark against inflation; and had not the pound gone into free fall . . . been devalued?

Not a bit of it, came the response from No 10 yesterday. Without a flicker of regret for the insult to the intelligence, the line was: 'We haven't devalued; we have merely suspended our membership of the ERM.' What? 'The pound is lower than it was, yes. But monetary policy is still tight and fully consistent with the Government's anti-inflationary objectives.'

So black is white, and white is black, and Mr Major is just as pragmatically grey as Harold Wilson and all the others who have caved in to market and other forces since the Second World War. The Clark Kent of British politics is no Superman after all.

That is not to suggest that he will be forced out of the Tory leadership. Politicians who bend tend not to snap. But there will be a price to pay in terms of personal credibility, however hard Mr Major points his finger at the Germans for forcing him away from the straight and narrow, or the Daily Mail makes a scapegoat of Norman Lamont as the incompetent oaf who got us into this mess.

None of this, of course, makes Mr Major unique. Nor does Wednesday's U-turn mark him out from his own Cabinet. It is one of the increasingly notable elements of the Westminster scene that the great bulk of politicians - of any party - are willing to slosh around in favour of any policy or person that is handed down from on high. Why else did every member of the Cabinet agree to join Mr Major and Mr Lamont in their headstands yesterday?

The critical answer to that is that they could not face the alternative - the logic of 15 per cent interest rates. If that logic had been followed, the Conservative Party grass roots would have gone bananas at their Brighton conference next month.

As it is, they have got a devalued pound, sterling is out of the ERM, there is scope for further interest rate cuts and the possibility of a stimulated economic boom that would return the bloom to the cheeks of the great wodge of Tory backbenchers - not to mention an electorate susceptible to amnesia for the sins of its betters. We would be back into the good old days of boom and bust that Mr Major used to deplore in his days of political purity.

The next test of the Prime Minister's character will come over the future of Mr Lamont. Not least because of his loyalty to his friend David Mellor, the Prime Minister has marked himself out as a man who stands by his friends. While Mrs Thatcher was willing to scapegoat Leon Brittan over the Westland affair in 1982 - when Opposition fire was landing uncomfortably close to her own office - Mr Major could yet prove himself of different mettle.

But if Mr Lamont went, Mr Major would not have much left - apart from the professional politician's talent to survive.

But he will never be the same man again. He has humbled himself in a way that none of his opponents ever managed. John Major must accept that, like other politicians, he cannot always make the right strategic decision. The golden thread has broken.

(Photograph omitted)