Understandably, even if a little obviously, parallels are being drawn between now and 1964. Harold Wilson enjoyed several pieces of good luck during that election. One of them was that the Conservative he feared most, Iain Macleod, was not available to campaign on behalf of Sir Alec Douglas-Home's government because he was not a member of it. He had refused to serve on Sir Alec's accession in 1963 and was to rejoin the front bench, by this time in opposition, two years later.

Today Macleod has his equivalent. He is Mr Kenneth Clarke. It is he that the Labour high command most fear. We cannot push the parallel too far. Mr Clarke is a member of the Government, very much so. He has taken an active part in the campaign, denouncing Mr Tony Blair and his colleagues as "unprincipled scoundrels"- a phrase with a fine pre-1914 ring to it, which no modern ministerial aide would allow to pass his master's lips. He called them this, with some justification, for their late conversion to the privatisation of state assets, if conversion it is.

The present position is not at all clear. What Mr Blair actually said to assorted fatcats and moneybags was that he believed "that where there is no overriding reason for preferring the public provision of goods and services, particularly where those services operate in a competitive market, then the presumption should be that economic activity is best left to the private sector, with market forces being fully encouraged to operate. There should be no dogmatic belief that the private sector should do everything or that the public sector should do everything. It is the public interest that is important ... what counts is what works."

Make of that what you will. It rather depends on how you define "the public interest" and on the criteria you adopt to determine whether something does or does not work. What happened next was that Mr Blair's New Labourspeak or Wordzak became entangled both with the future of the air traffic control service and with the large sum which Mr Clarke proposed to raise through the sale of state assets and which a Labour Chancellor would have to raise in some way too, if he meant to keep within the present government's spending plans.

Mr Gordon Brown then joined in with enthusiasm. Labour's sale of state assets, he gave us to understand, would be bigger and better than anything the Tories could put on offer. Roll up for Brown's Bargain Basement! Save pounds pounds pounds s! There would have been nothing like it since Wilson's "bonfire of controls" when he was President of the Board of Trade before 1951. Mr John Prescott duly put the English language to the test, which it failed; while Mr Blair made embarrassed noises. Once again, Labour policies started to unravel like an old cardigan the cat had been at.

Already it has happened on union recognition and on devolution (where proportional representation has also been slipped in through a side window). It has not yet happened on taxation, except to the extent that Mr Blair has been compelled to admit that the Scottish Parliament, assuming it is voted a tax-raising power in a referendum, will not be allowed to impose a higher level of taxation than exists in the rest of the United Kingdom. Or perhaps not. Mr Blair's New Labour Wordzak has its limitations as a means of lucid political discourse, which is of course part of its purpose.

But let me frame another question for Mr Clarke to put to Mr Brown or, rather, two questions. Do his fiscal promises include indirect taxes? And does he accept that, though the rates of direct taxes may be stabilised, the levels of direct taxes can nevertheless be increased? Presumably the honest answer to the first question is No and to the second Yes.

We know we are going to have a summer Budget. Mr Brown has at least been frank about that. For many years now he has been cultivating a manner appropriate to a Chancellor announcing bad news. His being both Scottish and a son of the manse assists him greatly in this endeavour. He seems constantly to be adjuring us to lower our voices because the coffin is still in the front parlour. Those of us who remember 1964 can write the script in advance: "Grave news ... no idea till we looked at the books ...

worse than we expected ... sacrifices ..."

All Labour Chancellors, from Philip Snowden to Denis Healey, say this kind of thing because they feel that somehow it is expected of them. In particular they are convinced that foreigners expect it of them. It always has the reverse effect to that intended. Far from being reassured that the Labour government is prudent, foreign opinion concludes that the country is in a bad way and it had better get its money out quick.

Wilson caused the financial crisis of 1964-65 not by refusing to devalue straightaway (the conventional explanation) but by proclaiming that the economy was in a terrible state, which he did for purely political reasons. He caused the crisis of 1966 which ended in the 1967 devaluation by fomenting a seamen's strike so that he could impress foreign opinion by standing up to it. But foreign opinion remained obstinately unimpressed. It said: "The seamen are on strike. Wilson has lost control."

The evidence of episodes of this kind, which occur with metronomic regularity two years after a Labour government has attained office, is the main reason for supporting a single European currency. But Mr Robin Cook is not supporting it: quite the reverse. Indeed, when I saw him debating the matter with Mr Malcolm Rifkind last week under the superintendence of Mr Jon Snow, I thought Mr Cook could exist quite happily in the modern Conservative Party.

This brings us back to Mr Clarke. Though he has been campaigning, he has hardly been placed in the forefront of the battle. That position has been taken up by Mr Michael Heseltine, and most valiantly has he fought, for a man of his age. But if Mr Heseltine can inflict nasty damage on Labour, Mr Clarke might just win the election for the Tories.

He is the only politician who can, because he is the only senior Tory who can give a plausible impression of being a fully paid-up member of the human race. He is also the only Tory with a good story to tell about his period of office. He is undoubtedly the Tory most feared by Labour.

Why then is he not given the role in the campaign which Mr Heseltine is now filling? The reason, I suspect, lies in Mr Clarke's position on Europe. You may say that this is substantially the same as Mr Heseltine's. But Mr Clarke is more open - if you like, more brash - about his views. Besides, if he were given equal billing with Mr Heseltine, it would mean that the two Tory stars were both Europhiles.

Europe is the sleeping beauty which neither party wants awakened But whatever Mrs Angela Browning's position may be as a member of the Government when she comes out against a single currency, there is no doubt that backbenchers - now technically candidates merely - such as Mr Nicholas Budgen and Sir Peter Tapsell are fully entitled to state their views. Mr John Major has said several times that the decision on whether to join will be taken by the House of Commons rather than by government. I do not know what Mr Blair's position is on this and should be very surprised if he decided to enlighten me.

Comments