Waldegrave picked wrong adversary: Decision to tangle with Lord Callaghan on the question of ministers deceiving the House may have been unwise, writes Donald Macintyre

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Indy Politics
IF William Waldegrave was guilty, as his critics charge, of political naivety when he implied on Wednesday that it was all right for politicians to lie on exceptional occasions, then his worst fault may have been to forget he was tangling with one of the great operators of post-war British politics. Lord Callaghan has a long memory; like all front rank politicians he is concerned about his place in history; and at 81 he is in as full command of his faculties as when he was Prime Minister.

When he read in his Independent its account of Mr Waldegrave's appearance before the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, Lord Callaghan acted swiftly. He did not take kindly to being cited as an example by Mr Waldegrave and he lost no time in demanding a retraction. Lord Callaghan's case is straightforward: on 16 November 1967, in the extremely uncomfortable circumstances that the Cabinet had that very day in the utmost secrecy decided to devalue, Mr Callaghan, as Chancellor of the Exchequer parried and evaded a series of difficult and pointed questions.

He did not tell the whole truth by any means - though his very evasiveness not only infuriated MPs but also caused further turbulence on the foreign exchange markets - but he did not lie. Equally, Mr Waldegrave did not say in those terms that he did.

Lord Callaghan said yesterday that ministers 'must allow the House to get angry with them. They must expect and accept the anger, but they must not mislead or lie to the House. Ministers have got to take the flak - and by God I got it. That is very different from misleading the House or lying to the House which is now alleged by some people.' Lord Callaghan amplified this yesterday by saying that a minister had to be 'ingenious' in devising an answer that was not a lie.

The closest Lord Callaghan did come to misleading the House was probably when he said, in reply to Stan Orme, still in the House today as MP for Salford East, that he had 'nothing to add to or to subtract from' previous answers on the subject of devaluation 'and in any case it does not arise from my original answer'. Considering that he had said - admittedly five months earlier - that 'those who advocate devaluation are calling for a reduction in the wage levels and the real standards of every member of the working class . . . I do not want either to devalue our own word or to bring down the standard of life of our own people' this was certainly not the whole picture. On the other hand Lord Callaghan made the point yesterday that he was not accused by the Opposition in the subsequent, post-devaluation Commons debate, of having deceived the House.

Interestingly, in the other case cited by Mr Waldegrave yesterday, that of Sir Stafford Cripps in 1949, Sir Stafford was accused by the Opposition of having deceived the House but then - at least in public - half-exonerated. The background is this: Like Lord Callaghan, Sir Stafford had said, in the Commons, on 6 July: 'Her Majesty's government have not the slightest intention of devaluing the pound.' As the year wore on there were intense negotiations with the US about the worsening British economic situation, with the result that Britain received more help through the Marshall plan. But it became increasingly clear that devaluation would be necessary. The chairman of the World Bank told Sir Stafford bluntly that there would have to changes in the dollar exchange rate and the Chancellor came home from Washington to announce devaluation.

Yet at this very time a Treasury official simply referred inquirers to Sir Stafford's 6 July statement. Which resulted in sharp exchanges between Cripps and Oliver Stanley, the Opposition Treasury spokesman when the House resumed, after devaluation, on 27 September 1949. Stanley suggested that Cripps had 'deceived everybody . . . brilliantly' but could not have liked doing it. 'Will the right honourable gentleman say when I deceived everybody?' Cripps asked.

Stanley referred to the Treasury official's statement only two days before the devaluation announcement that there had been no change in policy. Cripps explained that the Treasury official had not known about the change.

Stanley's reply had a sting in the tail: 'Then I withdraw any suggestion that the Chancellor decieved us brilliantly. All he did was to allow those over whom he has authority to go on deceiving us fully.' Again this did not actually involve a direct lie in the Commons.

The two cases are worth examining in detail because in sensibly drawing very narrowly the occasions on which a politician might be justified in deceit they, and hypothetical cases in war, were the only ones cited by Mr Waldegrave.

As the row rumbled on yesterday the Prime Minister made clear his support for Mr Waldegrave, who had been drawn into discussion of the issue because of the observation by Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, who had told the Scott inquiry it might be right for a minister to give an incomplete answer.

Sir Robin said 'My case is that only in the most exceptional cases should one mislead, like the devaluation case, but there is a wider category of cases where it is necessary to give an incomplete answer . . .' As it happens Mr Waldegrave was airing an important question. He did so before a Select Committee but it might have been in a university seminar on ministerial conduct. There may be a strong case for the Prime Minister clarifying once and for all that ministers should never lie in the Commons. But if Mr Waldegrave is right, it is a touch cynical - not to mention inconsistent - to condemn him for telling the truth as he saw it. If he is wrong - and Lord Callaghan insisted yesterday he was - then it is hardly a hanging offence. A political blunder at a sensitive time? Perhaps. But hardly a crime against the state.

(Photograph omitted)

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