JOHN Major has an annoying problem. He went swimming in the Thames one day and discovered, when he emerged, that Tony Blair was wearing his clothes. In the political sense, at least. The former British prime minister firmly believes his successor is riding high by benefiting from policies and a buoyant economy that Mr Major left behind. 'It was careless of me to have left them on the bank, and they don't fit him very well,' the former Conservative leader says with a smile. 'I don't disapprove of many of the [Blair] policies, because they were my policies long before they were [his].' But while Mr Major may cast a wistful glance towards 10 Downing Street from time to time, this backbench member of a parliamentary minority seems more concerned about the future than the past, though a recent visit to Hong Kong promoted his memoirs - a generally kind account of years in office and of colleagues who were not always as kind to him. He became government leader as the compromise choice to succeed the domineering Margaret Thatcher, revered by many but reviled by others. At Number 10, Mr Major sometimes wondered aloud if he had reached the top before he was ready, and at times struck colleagues as a bit uneasy about being surrounded by so many clever people. Commentators often painted him as grey, cautious to a fault, yet he served longer than most and his record has gained lustre with time. During an interview in a Ritz-Carlton executive suite where - as a devoted reader of Anthony Trollope - he was registered as Mr Palliser, the sweater-clad former prime minister offered views on many topics. Seemingly relaxed and fit, he dealt with questions directly, though his responses often were - no surprise - cautious. To start with, he thinks 'the Hong Kong handover . . . has gone as well as one could have hoped for, and I think that is a credit both to China and to Hong Kong. So I'm pretty relaxed about how that has gone over the past few years. 'The second thing to say . . . is that at some stage over the next 50 years China is going to have the biggest GDP [gross domestic product] of any nation. So one wishes to see China play a full role on the world stage and begin to be coaxed into international decisions more than she has been in the past. I think that is a wise policy, and over time I think it is also an inevitable policy . . .' But Mr Major has no prescription for making it so - the man who negotiated long over Hong Kong insists he is no China expert (in June he is to make his first Beijing visit for two years). He does offer the generality of seeking more 'dialogue', plus the specific of bringing the mainland into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as soon as possible. 'To have one of the world's biggest trading nations outside the WTO doesn't seem to be a very attractive idea,' he says. Looking ahead, he sees Hong Kong 'carving out its own niche' and succeeding. He calls trying to make it an Asian counterpart of London or New York 'exactly right'. He does expect 'some painful periods of transition', and says 'it would be nice to see a bit more privatisation', more housing in tenants' hands, and further deregulation. But he thinks such things are coming. Mr Major is not particularly worried by the present furore over the mainland's White Paper on Taiwan, 'a tiny bit of sabre-rattling'. He does note with optimism that each Taiwanese presidential candidate claims he is best able to deal with the mainland, and none talks of confrontation. He calls the mainland's increased exposure to outside forces a moderating influence, and wants the trend encouraged. 'China is moving into a different world and . . . is facing outside influences of a sort that its population didn't see before . . . This is bound to impact on the way China reacts' to issues like Taiwan. 'It is never a bad thing' when a nation moves from self-containment to internationalism. He also seems relaxed about the United States presidential elections. 'I think the Americans are fortunate in that when one looks at the main contenders . . . they are all internationalists . . . From a dispassionate European point of view, I think any one of them is a safe choice.' (He has never met Senator John McCain, but knows the other three - Vice-President Al Gore, Texas Governor George W Bush and former senator Bill Bradley - 'reasonably well'.) But Mr Major does worry about Russia, which he got to know as prime minister. Russian politics and economics 'clearly are not working very well, and they've had great blows to their prestige; they're quite a proud nation and they won't much have enjoyed that'. Because Russia faces 'intense' internal pressures, this offers the West more opportunity than challenge. Ignoring the country because it is 'down a bit would be very unwise. Here is a time to continue to treat Russia as a serious player . . . and when she emerges from her difficulties - which will take quite a long time - the world will gain from having treated her properly in her dog days'. But this means avoiding the appearance of confrontation and containment (which he also applies to China policy). As the European Union expands from 15 members to perhaps 25 over the coming decade, reaching the Russian border, it must not seem a threat. In particular, if new members also join the Nato alliance, modern missiles should be kept well clear of the Russian frontier - lest a 'neuralgic' Moscow once again becomes 'a brooding presence at one end of Europe . . . a unifying force [as] the communal enemy'. Mr Major does not expect a modern replay of the old Sino-Soviet alliance, despite talk of strategic partnership in both Moscow and Beijing. 'I would be very surprised if much happened, to be frank. I don't think there is a great commonality of interests there. I think they are likely to operate in different spheres of influence for some time,' he says. Closer to home, Mr Major welcomes the EU's plan for pulling some troubled Central European economies into the union. He expects older members that already share a common currency to become more closely integrated, though newcomers will enjoy full trading benefits. Altogether a good thing, in his view. But when will Britain join the inner group? 'Well, that's the great unknown, isn't it?' He notes that Britain has a different economic structure from other Europeans, and that the Blair government has lost its earlier 'enthusiasm' for signing up. 'So it could be a good deal longer than people imagine before we join the single currency,' he concludes, though talk within his own party about withdrawing Britain from Europe 'is just unreal'. However, Mr Major claims the sterling is strong enough to go it alone against the euro, the dollar and the yen - something many economists consider untenable over time. Perhaps that is why he calls joining the euro zone 'probable though not inevitable'. To his regret, Mr Major does not see other Europeans doing much to reduce the social welfare costs that make their economies less competitive, despite talk to the contrary. Germany is trimming 'only at the margins', while he believes Mr Blair has signed up for higher costs in Britain. If so, that may bring Mr Major's beleaguered Conservatives some much-needed relief. He argues Mr Blair is drifting from inherited policies that have served him well, permitting a Tory comeback. But Mr Major insists he will not be part of it. Not only will he decline any future government role, he suggests he may even leave Parliament at the next election.