Magazine article The Spectator

The Old Man of the Sea, Tony Hercules and Augean Stables

Magazine article The Spectator

The Old Man of the Sea, Tony Hercules and Augean Stables

Article excerpt

Most Cabinet ministers would have preferred an election last autumn. They think holding it then would have kept a Labour majority down, possibly to single figures. Now, increasingly, they fear it will be a landslide. They blame John Major for hanging on to the bitter end: `He simply loves office, you know. Not power - he doesn't know what to do with that - but office. Savours every moment, every second. That's why he did the dirty deal with the Ulstermen. Every day he stays in No. 10 matters to him.'

Time was when Irish votes were cheap. Sir William Harcourt, Liberal leader of the House, asked what it cost to buy the vote of an Irish MP, replied instantly, `Ten pounds - and a fiver on Derby Day.' Nowadays, they come more expensive. Some of the concessions Major made last week to buy the nine Unionist votes do not cost money. Others do. One calculation is that the deal will cost us 50 million, or roughly a million for every extra day Major spends in Downing Street. Amazing to think that this insignificant little man - well described by Alistair McAlpine as 'a pair of curtains hanging around Chequers' - is clocking up 70 quid of the taxpayers' money every additional minute he swanks around the premises.

Major will vanish into a well-deserved oubliette almost immediately after he loses the election. Future historians will be puzzled what to make of him. He stands for nothing. He came from nowhere and is heading for instant oblivion. He has no political principles of any kind. He does not seem to have any views, except for brief moments before someone comes along to change them. He has no friends, only cronies like David Mellor, Jeffrey Archer or Tristan Garel-Jones - the merest scrapings and scourings of the party. He has no loyalties. It is a significant revelation in McAlpine's memoirs that Major had his leadership-bid team in place even before Mrs Thatcher's fall.

His one talent is a certain capacity for acquiring office, reinforced by a positive genius for clinging to it. Who would have thought, when he was first invented, that he would become the longest continually serving prime minister of the 20th century after Macmillan, Asquith and Thatcher herself? Was ever mediocrity so durably rewarded by office? But then one remembers the endless tenure of Lord North, dismissed so contemptuously by Dr Johnson: `Sir, he fills a chair.' If a man, once in place, thinks of retaining office to the exclusion of all other considerations, it is remarkable how sturdily he can endure. For me, Major always conjures up the vision of the Old Man of the Sea in the Arabian Nights. The Old Man was a pretty useless fellow - no good at anything - but once he got his surprisingly sinewy legs round Sinbad the Sailor's neck, he proved almost impossible to shake off.

This has been the most corrupt government in living memory, in some ways worse than the Lloyd George coalition -- which at least had the merit of containing major figures engaged in great undertakings. The Major regime is a bunch of nobodies doing nothing much, and deeply knavish in addition. The recent change in Conservative Party finances is one of the great conjuring tricks of our time. How was the party deficit, at one time 19 million, transformed into a surplus so large that its chiefs are now able to spend 50 million on the election? …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.