Major gambles and wins in survival stakes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 December, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 December, 1994, 12:00am

FIRST, the good news in an action-packed week. Prime Minister John Major won a remarkable victory in a Commons' crisis that could have brought his government down, winning his Euro-finance bill by a comfortable 27 votes.

Eight hardline Tory Euro-sceptics have been summarily stripped of the whip for abstaining, a step which re-asserts Mr Major's authority over his fractious rebels.

As a result, a widely expected right-wing challenge to his leadership was beaten off. Even his critics had to concede that despite recent reverses, Mr Major still looks able to lead his party's bid for a fifth consecutive term in a little over two years' time.

Chances of achieving such a victory (which would place Mr Major, along with Lady Thatcher, as one of the three or four longest serving premiers in British history) was greatly enhanced by a cautious but brilliant budget from Chancellor Kenneth Clark.

While refusing to relinquish the crisis tax rises of the past 12 months, Mr Clark showed convincingly that Britain's recovery is now the best in Europe, promising steady growth with low inflation to the end of the millennium. He is even within sight of eradicating the Government's huge deficit which would enable decisive tax cuts and allow the re-emergence of the 'feel-good' factor in time for a spring 1997 election.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister's courage in pursuing a dialogue with Sinn Fein and the IRA has opened the way to the resolution of the Irish problem.

Yet oddly enough, this exuberant message, preached though it is day and night from the heights of Tory Party central office and from every cabinet minister who can grab a three-minute TV or radio sound-bite, is simply not getting through to the people.

Most curiously of all, it singularly fails to impress Britain's overwhelming Tory press, which as never before in its history appears irrevocably committed to pursuing the Prime Minister, his policies and his partners with every derogatory device available.

And so to the bad news, as it is portrayed by these influential (and theoretically loyal) observers.

They say that faced with a comparatively minor finance bill, Mr Major panicked at the thought of a parliamentary defeat on the critical Euro-issue and needlessly declared the issue one of confidence, absurdly tying his entire cabinet into a 'suicide pact' resignation and a general election should the vote fail.

This denied a substantial group of Euro-sceptics the chance to vote according to their cherished principles, a unique denial of basic parliamentary freedom. (There were allegations of dictatorship and even a cry of 'Adolf Hitler' from the constituency wings.) Mr Major himself will now be the victim of his own duplicity since the sacking of the eight, while it might have thwarted a leadership challenge, has also eliminated the Government's precarious 14 seat majority in the House.

Worse, it has created an unpredictable rump of angry independents, a party within an already disgruntled party. Unless they can be charmed back (something the Government already seems to be attempting) unpredictable crises lie in store for what is effectively a minority government.

The first will come on Tuesday with a full-blooded challenge to the imposition of a value-added sales tax on domestic fuel.

Bitter dissent thus runs deep in the party: Mr Major's panicky leadership is tolerated only because to attempt to change it would be to trigger the one crisis most want to avoid - a permanent and irrevocable split over Europe.

That, at least is the view of the loyalist press . . .

On to matters, including what surely must now prove the most remarkable political survival battle of the century - that of John Major's leadership. In placing bets on the outcome, it is worth recalling some of the man's more unusual aspects.

Mr Major rarely abides by conventional Downing Street rules; tends to ignore reasoned advice but listens to the last person whose views attract him; reads his own press (Thatcher never did) and is painfully affected by it; eschews 'the vision thing' and is likely to act on impulse or on bouts of ill-temper. The son of a circus high-wire act, he delights in risks, rides rather than slides on banana skins and is gifted with a strong survival instinct.

When, immediately before the 1992 elections, the polls, the policies and the pundits all appeared to be against him, John Major hauled his own soapbox through the hustings and - against all the odds - won another term. So no one should yet suppose he cannot repeat the act in 1997.