Political Commentary: But which bastards are on your side?

Donald Macintyre
Saturday 31 July 1993 23:02 BST

THE REMARK by Lyndon Johnson, which John Major couldn't quite remember in his famous exchanges with ITN's Michael Brunson, was made about J Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, in 1963. It was: 'I'd much rather have that fellow inside my tent pissing out than outside my tent pissing in.'

Whether or not, as his most recent biographer suggests, Hoover was in the habit of dressing up in women's clothes and therefore, in those unenlightened times, a bit of a security risk, is beside the point. If he had achieved nothing else, Johnson by that single remark encapsulated more vividly than anyone else a sort of eternal political truth.

To take a recent example, it is why Margaret Thatcher demoted rather than sacked Jim Prior in the immediate aftermath of the Cabinet split over economic policy in 1981; it is why she kept Peter Walker in the Cabinet, despite their fundamental differences, for 10 years. It may be why Mr Major was so anxious not to part with Norman Lamont for so long. But above all the tape suggests that the tent syndrome, and not ideology, is why he was not prepared to force the resignation of the Cabinet Euro-sceptics by adopting the European social chapter. That is the menacing inference being drawn on the party's right wing from his - other - rhetorical question to Mr Brunson: 'Would you like three more of the bastards out there?'

That may prove the most important single finding to emerge from the tape's deconstruction, and there is more to say about it. But there are others. First, there is the question of the 'golden age that never was but is now invented', as Mr Major refers to the 1980s. This is problematic. It invites, say from John Smith, or even a Euro-rebel out to cause trouble, an awkward Parliamentary question or intervention the next time Mr Major refers to the achievements of the Thatcher administration - of which he was a member from 1983 until it ended in November 1990 - along the following lines: 'Does the Prime Minister think the 1980s were or were not a golden age?' This is a harder question for him to answer than it might be for most of us. At the very least the 'golden age' gibe is not going to help him with the 'mother of all bastards', as one waggish Tory described Mr Major's predecessor last week.

Second, it shows that Mr Major's preoccupation with the press and television has not much abated, despite reports to the contrary. At one moment he tells Mr Brunson that he - Mr Brunson, that is - would have said he was a 'ham-fisted' leader if he had split the party by doing 'all those clever and decisive things people wanted me to do'. At another, he asks Mr Brunson rhetorically what the media would have done if he had not called the confidence vote on 23 July.

Since all this, including the reference to his Euro-sceptic colleagues as 'bastards', is in a conversation with a journalist, it is a safe bet that Messrs Lilley, Portillo and Redwood will be inclined to raise their eyebrows next time Mr Major rebukes the Cabinet for squabbling with each other through unattributable briefings to the press. Which is why Sir Norman Fowler so annoyed the Thatcherites last Sunday by declaring, somewhat gratuitously, that if members of the Cabinet disagreed with the Prime Minister they should resign. It was not, after all, the 'bastards' but Mr Major who raised the issue in the first place.

But it is on his own location in the political spectrum of the Tory party that disclosure of the tape goes furthest in 'outing' Mr Major. Until the Maastricht rebellion was in full swing, he was always a little enigmatic on Europe, with many in both factions of the party coming to the conclusion that he was one of them.

One member of the No Turning Back Group remembers the group being told at the time of the leadership election that Mr Major could envisage being out of the Community if it did not conform to Britain's demands; equally, he reportedly looked round at a recent dinner of the pro-European Positive Europe group and remarked: 'This is my kind of Tory party.' What the tape appears to do is position him unequivocally as a pro-European.

On the specific issue of the social chapter: a little history. It is still unclear whether Michael Howard qualifies as a 'bastard', but there is no doubt that, as Secretary of State for Employment, in the run-up to the Maastricht negotiations he was steadfast in making clear his opposition to the chapter. The crucial moment at Maastricht came when the Dutch presidency, backed by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, straining to meet British objections, offered as a compromise a significantly watered-down version of the chapter from which Britain finally opted out.

According to one account of his crucial meeting with Mr Kohl and Ruud Lubbers, the Dutch Prime Minister, Mr Major, his eyes hooded and his hands closed together, fingertips to nose, coolly considered the proposition for several moments, before firmly saying just one word: 'No'. There was certainly telephone traffic between Maastricht and Mr Howard's office in London. It is a safe bet that the thought of Mr Howard resigning crossed Mr Major's mind during his moment of quiet contemplation. But Mr Major can have been in little doubt 10 days ago that there would have been other resignations by Euro-sceptic Cabinet members, such as Peter Lilley, if he had signed the social chapter as a way out of his troubles.

In the country at large there is anecdotal evidence to back the view that Mr Major's robust language has gone down rather well. On the still sulphurous right of the party, however, it is a different matter. Which is another good reason for Mr Major to be thankful that he timed events as he did. The other is Christchurch, which would have brought the Commons to fever pitch had it still been sitting.

It is fanciful, though tempting, to see the Christchurch result as the beginning of the strange death of Tory England; the party will no doubt recover the seat in the general election. Paradoxically, Mr Major has a political bonus in the progressive collapse of the European exchange rate mechanism; it can be argued that it has shown that France has proved no more immune than Britain to the forces that humiliated the Government last September.

There are, no doubt, many on the left and in the mainstream of the party who will welcome Mr Major's blunt speaking to Mr Brunson; wish, indeed that he would do more of it. The problem remains on the rebel right - whose ranks may well be augmented by the presence of Norman Lamont. (Mr Lamont must feel especial Schadenfreude this weekend. Having been made the scapegoat for one by-election, he sees another one lost by an even bigger margin. Having watched the pound speculated out of the ERM, and carried much of the blame for it, he sees the same happening to the franc.)

For the backbench rebels - and, in Mr Major's apt phrase the 'dispossessed and the never possessed' - the civil war is not over. Most still shrink from the prospect of fielding a 'stalking horse' this winter, though that could change. The power of the disaffected is limited, uncertain; they suffered a signal setback with Mr Major's successful vote of confidence. But many remain angry. And they even have a sinister counter-quote for Mr Major from Lyndon Johnson: 'If you're in politics and you can't tell when you walk into a room who's for you and against you, then you're in the wrong line of work.'

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