Will Major be there at the end of the year?: John Major is not an absurd Prime Minister. He is not ridiculous. Yet that is how most people regard him

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THE MOOD in 10 Downing Street is upbeat. The divisions over Europe are history; 'back to basics' is a populist theme to recover the hearts and minds of Middle England for Majorite Toryism; the Anglo-Irish Joint Declaration, whether or not it paves the way to peace in Northern Ireland, is convincing evidence of an imaginative boldness that many believed the Prime Minister lacked; above all, the economy seems set fair for a golden period of the kind which established the dominance of Mr Major's predecessor a decade ago.

In his new year message, Mr Major talked of the prospects being almost unbelievably better than they appeared 12 months ago. It would only be a matter of time, he implied, before the electorate woke up to just how terrific things really were.

A version of this is echoed by the Prime Minister's closest advisers. After the dog days of the summer, when it was feared that a bad party conference might propel Mr Major into oblivion, they insist that a new Prime Minister has emerged. He is hardened by adversity, less trusting of colleagues, more ruthless than before in his political calculation. With almost every economic indicator set fair for the rest of the parliament, they are even beginning to put it about that their man may have the quality that Napoleon most sought in his generals, that of luck.

In theory, there is no reason why 1994 should not see John Major at last established as the unchallenged leader of his party, a formidable Prime Minister who will fight the next election at a time of his choosing, confident of victory.

But the people who work closely with Mr Major see a side of him which is far more impressive than anything revealed by speeches and interviews, and for them the idea of a born-again Prime Minister is not ridiculous. I am afraid, however, that they underestimate both the extent and the nature of Mr Major's unpopularity.

Though Margaret Thatcher was feared and hated by many, she was never an object of pity or contempt. Although she later became a very funny bunny indeed, the jokes about her were always tinged with respect.

The difference between Mr Major and Mrs Thatcher is that she bullied her colleagues, her party and the country; with him, it is the other way round. With the possible exception of Harold Wilson after 1966, I doubt whether any Prime Minister this century has been subjected to such sustained vilification by the press. The fact that Mr Major has been on the receiving end from predominantly Tory newspapers has made it harder to bear. It has meant that ministerial colleagues, Conservative MPs, party workers and business supporters have all felt liberated to join in the chorus of derision.

I am often asked my opinion of this or that politician (no doubt, in the hope - usually vain - that I have inside knowledge of an unpublishable kind). I always try to give a balanced picture and, for the most part, people seem quite pleased if you reveal that so and so is not all bad, but is hard-working, basically honest and kind to his children. Try saying anything good about Mr Major, though, and you will lose your audience and your credibility before the first sentence is finished.

There is something very disturbing about this. I actually think that Mr Major is one of the more decent people to have been Prime Minister of this country. Despite the daft things he sometimes says, he is an instinctive liberal, a good European, a chivalrous opponent and, as they say in Hollywood, a generally warm and sensitive human being. He also has a clear mind, an extraordinary grasp of detail, great reserves of patience and a rare talent for conciliation.

That is not to say that Mr Major is necessarily a good or convincing Prime Minister. He lacks a settled or confident view of the way the world works, he is a poor speaker with a tin ear for the sound of words, there is a drabness about his political imagination and there are times when the robustness of his temperament has been found wanting. But he is not an absurd Prime Minister. He is not ridiculous.

Yet that is precisely how most people regard him. The Government has regained much of the confidence it lost in the wake of the exchange rate mechanism fiasco. Ministers are once again running their departments on the basis of time horizons which stretch out longer than next week. The public finances are coming back under control, thanks to an astutely constructed and cheekily presented Budget. Unemployment is falling. Growth is surging. Inflation is only a memory. But the Prime Minister receives no credit for any of it. Unfairly, stupidly, unforgivingly, he is still thought to be ridiculous.

If I am right about this, it hardly matters what happens in the coming year. Almost everything can go right for the Government, but the Prime Minister's own opinion poll standings will barely change. It was not just Norman Lamont's reputation which was irreparably damaged by Black Wednesday; it was Mr Major's as well. The ERM destroyed the Prime Minister's prestige, removed from him the aura and mystique of power, without which effective government is impossible.

Until now, it has not been possible to see this clearly; there have been so many other explanations for Mr Major's dismal poll ratings. If the local government elections in May and the European Parliament elections in June are as grisly for the Tories as appears likely, there will still be the spring tax increases to blame. But many Tory MPs will come to believe even more fervently than they do already that the party is unelectable under their damaged, diminished and derided Prime Minister. Given the party's time- honoured tradition of calm in a crisis and dedication to loyalty, I think we all know what is likely to happen next.

I hope I am wrong about this. By and large, Mr Major is a much better man than his enemies. It is also quite possible that, in his fourth year in the job, he is acquiring some of the toughness he could have done with earlier. But it is a toughness forged in adversity. Somehow in the next 12 months Mr Major must contrive to make himself look like a winner. If, against all odds, a degree of peace comes to Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister may be looked at in a different light. But the peace will not be glorious, great though the relief would be. I think that the voters have made up their minds about John Major and they will not easily be persuaded to unmake them.