Short term gamble
JOHN MAJOR has staked his Prime Ministership on a remarkable personal gamble. Resigning as leader of the Conservative Party and calling a leadership contest is a high-risk tactical move, which could end in humiliating defeat. But by setting off a leadership race at a time of his own - not his enemies' - choosing, Mr Major has vastly improved his chances of remaining in office long enough to lead the party into the next general election. In the short term, he may boost his personal standing with both the party and the public. But a short-term gain for the Prime Minister is no substitute for a revitalisation of the party.
The boost Mr Major is seeking is the kind he might derive from winning a war. His performance during the Gulf conflict helped restore Conservative fortunes after Margaret Thatcher's downfall - just as the Falklands War revived her chances two general elections earlier. It put his stamp on the leadership and contributed to the party's unexpected victory in 1992. Now, with his personal popularity and that of his party at rock bottom, it might take another, popular war to put him back on top. Beating his Conservative foes may not be enough.
Despite his remarkable achievement in bringing calm to Northern Ireland, and despite the cyclical recovery of the economy, Mr Major has not lived up to his early promise. He has failed to give his party direction or hold it together. A split over Europe has dogged his prime ministership almost from the moment he took power. After 16 years in Government, the Conservatives are tired and drifting: Mr Major is not the man to pump adrenalin back in their veins.
The Prime Minister is certainly a fighter. His best performances are when he has his back to the wall; any challenger risks a bloody nose. But while his latest tactical move may be enough to keep him at the Conservative helm until the next election, it will not heal the party's rifts over Europe, make unpopular policies more attractive or give worn-out ideologies a face-lift. Nor will it rein in the party's right wing, which is determined to put a further stretch of ideologically 'clear, blue water' between itself and an increasingly centrist Labour Party.
If the best the Conservatives can come up with is another two years of Majorism, they will deserve defeat at the polls. Although the possession of power is the party's main reasons for existence, losing office may not be bad for it after so long in Downing Street. As Labour has at last discovered, there is nothing like a period in opposition to clean out the cobwebs and inject new life and dynamism into a political party.