A Failure of Leadership

By Rose, Paul B. | Contemporary Review, March 1993 | Go to article overview

A Failure of Leadership


Rose, Paul B., Contemporary Review


I do not remember a time when there appeared to be such a failure of political leadership not only in Government but also in Opposition. Mr. Major had barely started his post-election honeymoon when a whole host of skeletons fell out of cupboards, ghosts of the Thatcher era returned to haunt him and his best friends seemed to be doing their utmost to embarrass him. The catalogue is quite remarkable. If there was one issue which raised my own personal anger to a level not reached since I was active myself in the House of Commons it was the cavalier treatment of the mining communities by, of all people, Michael Heseltine whom I have long regarded as one of the most civilised and interventionist of conservative leaders. One almost wondered whether his civil servants were out to undermine him but it is more likely that he had not realised the extent of feeling that was evoked among all sections of the population. If Arthur Scargill had been Lady Thatcher's whipping boy he was now rehabilitated as Tory toffs applauded the men with miners' helmets in the West End of London.

David Mellor was one of Major's best appointments and was accepted widely among persons of all political views in the Arts and sport as a capable Minister concerned with our heritage and national pastimes. A penchant for Spanish actresses is no bar to high office although it may lead to ribald jokes. However, the acceptance of free gifts even in the form of holidays from persons lobbying on behalf of an overseas organisation is something to which no Minister should be a party and ultimately David Mellor fell from grace. I have little doubt that he will return in due course as did Cecil Parkinson in the previous era.

The fact that Chris Patten had not even jumped the hurdle into West-minster left John Major with only one staunch ally in a leading position namely Norman Lamont. His total confusion and near panic in first trying to defend and then devaluing the pound last September made Harold Wilson's gaffes about 'The pound in your pocket' seem almost innocuous. However, notwithstanding the record levels of unemployment, bankruptcies and house repossessions John Major blinked a little, occasionally sounded a little tetchy, repeated the words 'Oh yes' and fell steadily in the ratings.

The revelations over arms to Iraq should have rocked the Government to its foundations and yet even Robin Cook, one of Labour's most effective front benchers, was only able to sound off a few rounds of light artillery in a situation where the shrapnel should have been causing gaping wounds on the Government benches.

And yet what is totally remarkable among all this chaos is that the leader of Her Majesty's major Opposition party has totally failed to take advantage of this situation and is himself coming increasingly under fire--mainly from the ranks of those behind him. To be fair to the Government, as Leon Blum stated many years ago, 'No government can remain stable in an unstable society and an unstable world' but this Government certainly deserved a more aggressive Opposition.

Leadership demands qualities that cannot be easily analysed and as many have acknowledged one does not have to be intellectually bright to be a competent leader. John Smith is bright, reassuring and had a reputation for integrity as when he voted with the famous sixty-nine Labour MPs to take Britain into Europe. In a sense he forfeited that record of integrity by taking the easy way out in voting against John Major over Maastricht and at the same time the Labour herd showed their total lack of insensitivity by accusing the Liberals of propping up the Government because the Liberals happened to vote for what they--or nineteen out of twenty of them believed. The same arguments were beginning to dominate Parliament that dominated it just over twenty years ago.

Even in this regard John Major's leadership at the Conservative Party Conference, while effective in diffusing some of the worst aspects of Euro-scepticism, played to the gallery and totally lacked vision. …

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