Major becomes a master of U-turns

AMID the vacuousness that seems to surround the British Government, John Major had another stab this week at defining what he stood for.

He did it at the Carlton Club, that bastion of Tory correctness in St James's where all prime ministers know they should get a sympathetic hearing.

It was an expansion on his theme of a classless Britain we have heard before, a Britain of dignity, generosity and tolerance - quite different to anything Margaret Thatcher would have wanted to trumpet.

Linked with it he hinted at something akin to the American Workfare scheme, suggesting that perhaps the time was right in Britain now for the unemployed to be forced to do something useful towards their weekly dole cheques.

It found a ready audience among those at the Carlton Club and one suspects would find a willing acceptance elsewhere. He wanted a society without the deference of the past but also one where unemployment benefit would be linked to a service to society.

The Workfare move is interesting in a month when even the official figures for unemployment, often suspected of being well below the true picture, are likely to show it topping three million for the first time. John Major says he is after ''radical options'' to face up to the unemployment question.

He admits he hasn't worked it out and there are already several leading Tories who have spoken out against it as unworkable here.

But what we witnessed at the Carlton Club was really just an extension of John Major's attempts at populism, much the same as some of the policies currently beginning to be enacted on the other side of the Atlantic.

We have had the Citizen's Charter, the Patients' Charter, a move towards more traditional standards in the schools.

He even announced an assault on red tape this week - and how we all hate bureaucracy. The Government is concerned that bureaucracy may only be acting to hinder new growth in the economy and in fact have as damaging an effect as higher taxation.

So the order is that Whitehall task forces will examine the entire body of 7,000 rules regulating business activities in Britain, ranging between rules governing the distance between clothes pegs in changing rooms to those stipulating that factory wallshave to be washed every 14 months.

The latter could easily have been a popular Thatcherite initiative but the rest possibly not so.

In terms of populism we have seen three Government U-turns in the past few months. This week it went right back on its words of only last month and reprieved four famous infantry regiments from merger, an act which may be hard to comprehend outside Britain for the passions it aroused.

The regiments happened to be some of the best at attracting and retaining soldiers, acts of economy in their own right.

The moves were prompted by the over-stretch in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the face of the cuts implemented by the Options for Change Defence review.

We saw Mr Major go back on the closure of the mines and U-turn again - albeit forced to - over British membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

There is little doubt there will be another U-turn on the unpopular decision to close revered London hospitals like St Bartholomew's soon.

On top of that the Government is dithering over the future of the naval dockyards and on other aspects of the health service, as well as and above all over the economy.

For while the populist may applaud the U-turns and responses to public pressure, they can give an overall impression of weakness.

That partly explains why the financial markets are so doubtful about the Government's handling of the economy,.

There is doubt about whose hands are on the tiller - John Major's or Norman Lamont's - and if Lamont is not guiding the ship then what is he doing as Chancellor anyway? Could anybody honestly have expected all this of Margaret Thatcher, after all it took poll tax riots on the streets of middle class towns like Maidenhead to make her turn around on that policy? Far from demonstrating that we have a strong prime minister most of the Prime Minister's actions at present only demonstrate the idea that he is not sure where we are heading.

There are those who say that had Chris Patten not lost his seat at Bath then he would have been in the Chancellor's residence at No 11 Downing Street and we might have a little less of the vagueness we are witnessing at the moment. Any takers for that theory?