The price of weakness

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 April, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 April, 1997, 12:00am

In four weeks' time, British voters choose the country's next government. It is widely forecast that the Labour Party will turn its commanding lead in the opinion polls into a governing majority, if only because after 18 years in office the Conservatives look a spent force, fatally crippled by their own internal weaknesses. This has been made dramatically apparent in recent weeks as the Tories have been bogged down in a fresh swamp of sleaze and scandal, which has shown the Prime Minister unable to assert himself within the ranks of his own party.

In the past, errant public figures resigned their post and disappeared into decent obscurity. This is no longer the case. A middle-aged MP shown on television frolicking on the grass with a 17-year-old nightclub hostess refuses to stand down, and is backed by his constituency party. A former minister accused of taking money in return for tabling parliamentary questions is hanging on despite stern warnings from his party leaders. The Deputy Prime Minister has made plain in public that the two men should go; in each case, they have refused.

There is a debate in Britain on whether an MP's private life has any bearing on his ability to do his job, but what is clear is that some MPs feel they can behave as they wish, defy the instructions of their party chiefs, and get away with it.

Coming on top of his far more serious failure to give his party a commanding lead on the vital question of Britain's relationship with mainland Europe, this defiance further pulls the rug from under John Major. He is in a paradoxical situation. Economic prosperity is supposed to be the key to winning elections, and Mr Major's years in power have seen a marked improvement in Britain's fortunes. But the perceived weakness of his leadership, and the way that a few Conservative MPs can put their own personal position above everything else, leaves him as a man without the strength to draw the electoral benefits of prosperity.