Barmy army plagues Major

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 September, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 September, 1993, 12:00am

WHO could blame John Major if he looked rather depressed at times during his tour of Japan and Malaysia this week, accompanied by a plane-load of hacks more hellbent on making mischief than in covering substantive issues.

While topics like GATT, the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia were being debated around the world it took the second attempted coup in Russia to snap the British media out of their obsession with the future of the Prime Minister.

There could hardly be anything more tedious than these end of silly season stories which day after day speculated on who were the Machiavellian minority - the ''barmy army'' in John Major's words - or as he also called them ''bastards'' and ''devils'' - who wanted him out.

In Malaysia his presence as effective head of a grand sales mission had the effect of confirming orders for British industry of GBP1 billion - including a new national airport, the biggest civil project undertaken in the country. It prompted GEC chief Lord Prior, himself a former Tory Cabinet minister, to comment: ''John Major was never my choice of Prime Minister, but I cannot speak too highly of him. He has done a bloody good job for industry, a bloody good job for Britain.'' Fine words indeed, but you had to look hard in the British press to find them.

The Daily Express had him, ''near to political despair'' saying he ''has complained of being isolated by his own Cabinet''. The Sun even carried a feature: ''Ten signs Major's going the same way as Maggie.'' The normally more astute media took the same theme. The Daily Mail opined: ''Have the Tories got it in for the middle classes?'' while The Daily Telegraph accused Mr Major of ''chronic sensitivity'' about the criticisms of him - hardly a friendly comment in its own right.

Now these are not Labour papers, each and every one is true Tory.

If I were to tell you where all this stuff about a challenge to him was coming from you would not recognise the names. There is Teresa Gorman, an unpredictable MP from Essex, who recently called for the castration of sex offenders. There is Sir RichardBody, an old knight of the shires who went on the radio this week telling us all that Mr Major would be voluntarily stepping down. That pitch is shared with others including John Carlisle, Tony Marlow, Sir Peter Tapsell and former minister Edward Leigh.

Most political journalists believe the stories have a slight basis in reality but are being blown up out of all proportion. They may fascinate Westminster pundits but for the rest of us they have become a big yawn.

The Government does have problems of course. The imposition of value added tax on heating bills is proving deeply unpopular, as much a noose around the neck as was the poll tax under Margaret Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher made much of her espoused policy of No U-turns but in fact she did make them when times got hard.

John Major was voted into power because he represented something different from the hectoring tones of the Iron Lady. He has made U-turns - but left them indecently late. He said he would not leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Community,he would not devalue the pound, he would not sack David Mellor or Norman Lamont. He did all these - but too late to avert criticism.

Now we do want strong leadership but there is every argument for a few decent U-turns on policies that are proving deeply unpopular. Once his Government's popularity starts to turn around there can be no denying that all this talk of a challenge against him would vanish.