THERE is a horror novel - The Survivor by James Herbert, turned into a low-budget film starring Robert Powell - that begins with a single passenger being dragged from the wreckage of a crashed jumbo jet. The man's initial exhilaration at escaping is undermined by nightmares and a series of eerie mishaps that befall him. At the end, the character dies and it is revealed that, in fact, he was killed in the crash with the other passengers. However, through some supernatural confusion, his spirit walked the earth in human form for a year. The second 'death' squares appearance with reality.
The plot of this novel came back to me while watching John Major's interview with Jonathan Dimbleby on Sunday's On the Record: the Prime Minister's first set-piece television appearance for many months. Like Powell in the movie, Major had human shape but there was something missing in the eyes. As with the hero of The Survivor, his relief at having come through intact had been replaced by a sense of being haunted and punished. It was as if he had really been meant to die electorally in April 1992, but somehow struggled out through an error by the gods of policies. Now, however, through a messy libel action, a parliamentary defeat, a run of by-election losses and an arms-dealing inquiry, fate was attempting to balance the books.
Although there is little sympathy around for Mr Major, not all his problems are a result of his own incompetence. A significant proportion of his unpopularity is nothing personal. Pressed on his own opinion poll notoriety, President Clinton recently said that 'running these big industrial democracies these days, you're not going to be popular'. Though this might be taken as passing the buck, it is in fact accepting it. The people of the world's great tyrannies overthrew their governments in the late Eighties. The people of the world's great democracies took their turn in the early Nineties. Never has there been less continuity between group photographs of leaders attending G7 summits. Electorally the exception, Britain has not proved emotionally exempt from this atmosphere of revolt.
A generalised contempt for leaders - spreading unexpectedly in Britain to the formerly staunch Tory press - is one symptom of this. Another, perhaps, is a new sentimentality towards those previously rejected by the electorate (see, for example, the four-part profile of Neil Kinnock that started on television last night and the recent huge and sympathetic biography of Edward Heath). Ambitious politicians must contemplate the possibility that countries are, for the moment, ungovernable in any proper sense. It may be no coincidence that two senior British ministers have recently been hospitalised with nasty (and perhaps stress-related) ailments: Michael Heseltine's heart, John Patten's stomach.
A few years ago, a dull but steady performance such as the Prime Minister's on On the Record would have been enough to enthuse the newspapers and leave the constituency parties boiling with loyalty. This week, it seems unlikely to have achieved either. In a curious sense, Britain seems no longer to be running on a five-year political cycle. To use an analogy the Prime Minister may understand, the mood in politics is similar to that which takes hold of a cricket crowd during a batting collapse. Such becomes the hunger for incident that the fall of more wickets - even, curiously, of the side you support - seems vastly more desirable than a steady defensive retrenchment.
The Prime Minister can at least take comfort from the fact that his own dismissal would not necessarily quiet the appetites of the crowd. Any imminent successor to Major would be Britain's third prime minister in three years and a further change of Tory leader before the next election could not be ruled out. Politically, it is an age of nightwatchmen, not century-makers.
Even so, there are elements of Mr Major's own game - his poor defensive technique, his lack of forcing strokes - that would make him look uneasy at the crease in almost any circumstances except the perfect political wicket of a huge majority and a buoyant economy. And those of Major's difficulties that are internal - nothing to do with global contempt for politicians generally, but distaste for him - were clearly to be seen during his interview with Dimbleby. Whereas Bill Clinton, even in trouble, telegraphs a combative relish for the life of politics, Major seems increasingly like someone who appeared on Jim'll Fix It and was allowed to be Prime Minister for a day, when the wind changed and froze him in the role.
The extent of his disengagement from the game was apparent in a peculiar moment during Sunday's programme. Having pulled a quotation from Paddy Ashdown out of the inside pocket of his blazer, the Prime Minister then spent most of his next answer refolding the note and returning it to his pocket, a sound like a forest fire battering the soundtrack as he pulled the sheet past his chest microphone. As well as showing that he either no longer receives or no longer notes his media training, the incident suggested that he put tidiness before his political survival, that his brain was only half occupied by an interview of such importance. Unusually for a politician in such an encounter, Major kept losing Dimbleby's eyeline, as if distracted by technicians in the room. You could say he was on auto-pilot, but few aviation experts recommend the use of this device when about to crash.
A newspaper cricket writer once told me that John Major, when a young MP and junior minister, would engage in lengthy correspondence about batting averages and bowling figures. This Wisden mentality was in evidence when Dimbleby, justifiably enough, faced him with his 1992 election claim: 'Vote Tory on Thursday and the recovery will begin on Friday'. Major's reply began: 'If you look at the statistics which always become available historically, the economy was growing in June of last year . . . there was growth in the period between June and September . . . .' But a sound-bite thrown at a politician should be countered with another cute one-liner, not an essay. Another of his answers on Sunday started: 'We've improved ECGD cover . . .', with Dimbleby intervening to unravel the acronym.
In his present popularity doldrums, the Prime Minister might object that the lack of charisma and absence of ideological signature which are now perceived as his weaknesses were precisely the qualities that attracted his colleagues in 1990 and, to a lesser extent (because of the complicating issue of taxation), his electors in 1992. But few tears should be shed for him. His assets have become his liabilities, in a variation of the difficulty faced by many homeowners and company executives during the administrations of which he was a part. Raised to the top by negative energies - popular in turn for being not Thatcher, not Heseltine, not Kinnock - he has failed to build a positive force around him. It will be for his successor(s) to discover how much of the current hostility is anti-Major and how much anti-politician.
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