Crumbling governments' crumbs

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The Independent Online
The Greeks used to say that the gods themselves were moved by gifts, and that gold did far more than words. But John Major can forget the advice of Euripides, for the Prime Minister will now be looking at giving away hospitals, some new roads, more underground trains, the odd airport, and a few carefully placed new fire engines if he wants to continue in power.

The cries of "blackmail" and "ransom" increased yesterday as details of the deal between the two Tory MPs and the Secretary of State for Health, Stephen Dorrell, emerged, but one parliamentary diarist, the Right Honourable Tony Benn, cried: "This is not blackmail ... this is democracy in action."

As part of the last Labour government in 1979, Mr Benn will have been aware of the similar deals that confronted a Labour minority government desperately clinging to power. Labour's whips struggled to keep, one former whip recalled, "the malcontents" happy.

The Callaghan administration got used to hanging on with the help of the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland. And, initially, the Welsh Nationalists came to Jim Callaghan's assistance. They wanted compensation for former miners suffering from pneumoconiosis. Labour gave it to them in return for votes. The gift train was now running.

Gerry Fitt, now Lord Fitt, was one of the two SDLP MPs who generally voted with Labour. He disliked the hardline tactics of the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Roy Mason. The SDLP also wanted a gas pipeline for Ulster. Mr Mason would not be moved, and there was no decision on a pipeline. When the opportunity arose, Gerry Fitt and Frank White voted with the opposition parties, and the Thatcher years began.

Whether those Tory MPs who are threatening to vote against the Government will do so, and whether, like Gerry Fitt, they walk through a voting door with tears in their eyes, is yet to be determined. But at the moment Mr Major may need reminding that any conscience bought once, might need to be bought twice.

However, there is one other real problem. One political analyst in Westminster said: "In many marginal Tory constituencies the sitting MPs don't have anything to barter with. Maybe there is no hospital under threat, no new road to complain about. And if there is bloody nothing there, then they will be bloody sweating."

But, as Mr Benn believes, all this is not blackmail. Maybe. But you can buy friends with nice presents.