Magazine article The Spectator

Even the Ranks of Hackery Could Scarce Forbear to Cheer-But Will It Do the PM Any Good?

Magazine article The Spectator

Even the Ranks of Hackery Could Scarce Forbear to Cheer-But Will It Do the PM Any Good?

Article excerpt

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Tory party went off message. Central Office had always known that there would be trouble when the press got hold of Tory candidates' election addresses and read what they were saying about the single currency. But the outcome was worse than the gloomiest estimates; even ministers were refusing to accept the party line. So the journalists arrived for the Tories' Wednesday morning press conference expecting to conduct the funeral rites for Mr Major's election campaign.

He had other ideas. He decided that he, too, would tear up the script. Instead of sounding edgy, defensive, unconvincing as we all expected that he would - he went on the attack. Without a note, he gave a 20minute speech, with a weight of argument and conviction. Mention 'passion' in the same sentence as John Major and many people would giggle. Those who know the private man also know how forcefully he can express himself; most of them have long despaired of his ever being able to do so in front of public audiences. On such occasions, there seems to be a barrier between his feelings and his language. But not on Wednesday; that was an impassioned performance and the atmosphere of the press conference was entirely different from what anyone had expected. We had assumed that the platform would shuffle awkwardly as the PM made unavailing attempts to change the subject, and that Brian Mawhinney would bring down the gavel as soon as he could. Instead, the session overran; the PM took questions in masterful style, and the tone of those questioners was much more respectful than would have seemed possible when the proceedings began. `If only your whole speech would be broadcast,' said Jon Snow; no Tory he. Even the ranks of hackery could scarce forbear to cheer.

Not that this will necessarily do the Prime Minister much good. `Paul Dacre will see the video', said one journalist, referring to the editor of the Daily Mail, `and he will be impressed. He'll watch it again, and he'll still be impressed. Then he will play it a third time and decide that nothing has changed. He'll tell the news desk to phone up Bill Cash and Edwina Currie and see what they think.'

The voters' reaction is harder to gauge. Will they focus on disunity, which would be bad news for Mr Major, or will they give the Tories credit for being prepared to discuss the most important issue facing the country? Might some of them be reassured by the extent of Tory Euroscepticism, which should prove to anyone less stubborn than Ken Clarke the impossibility of a Tory government ever joining a single currency. Responses will no doubt vary. But the disunity is damaging, as is the impression of weakness.

In his handling of the European question, John Major has displayed his finest qualities, and the defects of those qualities. When he became Prime Minister, his party was divided and British diplomacy was in difficulty, while public opinion was confused and often deluded. The myth had gained currency that all Britain's problems with Europe arose from a failure of national will and could be solved by the exercise of that will. Those who took this view also claimed to be fervent partisans of Maggie. They could never explain why, if it were a simple matter of willpower, she had somehow failed to exercise it during her eleven and a half years in No. 10.

Europe is a problem of hideous complexity. If one rules out withdrawal, there are no simple answers (not that there would be anything simple about withdrawal). …

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