Which institution faces the greatest PR challenge in 1996? President
Bill Clinton, to demonstrate that he is a real world leader? Sinn
Fein/IRA, to convince us that they believe in peace? Shell, to recover a
reputation for environmental sensitivity after its Brent Spar and
Nigerian misfortunes? The EC, to become the listening community, which
might thus kill stone dead the elitist plan for a federal United States
of Europe? Or ‘New’ Labour, to prove it is not just a spin doctor’s
All of these are formidable tasks. But, in my book, the greatest
challenge confronts John Major’s Government. It is 17 months, at best,
from a General Election, 32 points behind in the polls, and has lost all
knack of securing credit for its good works. Everything it touches seems
to turn to dross.
This is a potentially terminal condition for any Government. Unless
treated quickly, it is almost certainly lethal for one that has been in
office for nearly 17 years. Worse still, the Government has not been
able to command good marks since the speculators removed us from the ERM
on white Wednesday in mid-September 1992.
I got the measure of its problem when, to mark Mr Major’s fifth
anniversary in office on Budget day, I rang the Treasury with a simple
question: ‘How much, if at all,’ I asked, ‘is the average family better
off than when Mr Major won the 1992 election?’
The Treasury defined the average family as one earner with two children
and a pounds 33,000 mortgage. Such households, it said, were pounds
1,170 a year, or pounds 22.50 a week to the good in net real terms -
that is, taking everything into account, including inflation and all
forms of taxation. And they have more, perhaps pounds 4 a week, to come
after Chancellor Kenneth Clarke’s much maligned Budget last week.
Yet, no one believes they are better off than three years ago. The
country is in a grumpy mood, brooding on its perceived misfortunes
instead of counting its blessings. And the Tories seem incapable of
coaxing them out of it.
Why? Have we grown so sophisticated that, however better off we know we
are, we hold the Government responsible for denying us the jam and
clotted cream on our scones by raising taxation to minimise the
borrowing needed to finance higher spending? Maybe. But why then do we
not credit the Government for bringing interest rates down some eight
percentage points and thereby saving home-owners a bomb in mortgage
It does not add up, unless the certainties of the Thatcher era have
ironically produced an economy which, while generally delivering more
real cash, has left the nation feeling more insecure. If so, how can
Government policy and PR eliminate a feeling of insecurity?