A desperate man

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 July, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 July, 1993, 12:00am

AFTER his general election victory last year, John Major's ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat won him a reputation as a man of hidden strength, whose dull exterior disguised a backbone and nerves of steel. Fourteen months later that same talent has left him looking tarnished and unprincipled. His resort to a confidence vote to quell a rebellion in his own party was a sign of desperation, not of strength. Unable to convince his back benches to support his policy on Europe out of conviction, he whipped them into line by dint of his own unpopularity.

If they voted against him, he would bring them devastating defeat at the polls. In the words of Britain's Guardian newspaper, ''Even the most mindless turkeys don't vote for Christmas''.

The battle over Britain's ratification of the Maastricht Treaty on European Union, which rebels fear hands too much power to unelected European Community officials, has progressively weakened Mr Major's government.

But winning last night's vote will allow him to ratify the treaty regardless. He now has a chance to put the Maastricht debate behind him to rebuild his own reputation and his government's popularity. If he fails, the next crisis could destroy him.

In Hongkong, Chris Patten will have greeted the vote with relief. A defeat would almost certainly have led to a general election, despite the theoretical possibility of an internal Conservative Party coup to replace Mr Major. Whether an election brought the Labour Party to power alone, or in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Mr Patten could expect to retain his position as Governor.

Both opposition parties broadly support his policies and are sufficiently afraid of his popularity to be happy to leave him thousands of miles away in Hongkong.

But under John Major, the Governor has extraordinary access to the Prime Minister whom he claims as a personal friend. That special relationship would be tough to maintain under a Labour leader. It is Mr Patten's proud claim that ''no one can slip a tissue paper'' between himself and the Prime Minister. Under John Smith, a bargepole might have slipped between them.