Blair could bring down the Government. Why won't he?

Political Commentary
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The Independent Online
After attending three party conferences on the trot - a stiff trip, as the racing journalists put it - and going down to the House last week, I am surprised by the way the opposition parties seem content to accept Mr John Major's timetable. This goes roughly as follows. November: Mr Kenneth Clarke's Budget. December: Christmas. January: New Year. February: unseasonable sunshine. March: Mr Clarke's Emergency Pre-election Giveaway Budget (I have made that up, but it is an idea Mr Clarke might consider). April: election campaign. May: election.

It is only at this point that the predictions of the party leaders diverge. Mr Major says he will win. Mr Tony Blair says he will too, though he warns his colleagues against over-confidence. And Mr Paddy Ashdown says he will hold the balance of power. There are no surprises here. This is precisely what one would have expected the leaders to say. What is surprising is that at no point over the past month has either Mr Ashdown or Mr Blair threatened to bring down the Government.

Mr Ashdown speculated about exerting influence in the future. Mr Blair talked in exalted but largely meaningless language about the delights of the 21st century under New Labour. Neither mentioned the next few months, and how they proposed to occupy their parties' time.

This is odd when you come to think about it. There are 651 members in the present House of Commons. (After the election there will be 659.) The Conservatives now have 324. This was so even before the departure of Mr Peter Thurnham for the Liberal Democrats, because he had previously resigned the Whip anyway.

You might conclude, accordingly, that the Conservatives had already lost their absolute majority, which would depend on their having 326 members or more. This is to forget Madam Speaker Boothroyd and the three committee chairmen, Dame Janet Fookes, Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse and Sir Michael Morris. They bring the active strength of the House down to 647. Thus the Conservatives still have an absolute majority of one. They will lose it when one of their members dies, as sadly one of them is expected to do shortly.

It is not wholly clear whether Mr Blair and Mr Donald Dewar, his Chief Whip, would like to bring the Government down. What is certain is that Mr Dewar does not really think he can manage it. He believes that the nine Official Unionists under Mr David Trimble will see Mr Major through to May. They will be eight if Mr Cecil Walker leaves them, as he has hinted he may. But this would not greatly affect Mr Dewar's calculations.

Quite why Mr Trimble should be so well-disposed towards Mr Major at the expense of Mr Blair - or why Mr Dewar should be so convinced of it - remains mysterious. It may be that Mr Major's denunciation of Mr Gerry Adams at Bournemouth was intended to ingratiate the Prime Minister still further with Mr Trimble. But it is difficult to see why he should have been looked upon with any great favour in the first place. For every single action of successive Conservative governments, from Lady Thatcher's Anglo-Irish Agreement 11 years ago to Mr Major's so-called peace process today (if it is still proceeding) has been inimical to the interests of the Unionists.

I am not arguing about whether these various "initiatives" were right or wrong. In my writings I give a prudently wide berth to Jews, Arabs and Irishmen. I am stating merely that, objectively (as the Marxists say), the Ulster Unionists have gained precious little out of the British Conservatives.

Indeed, the only concession of any value which they have obtained was granted by Lord Callaghan 19 years ago, when he increased Northern Ireland representation in the House to 17, so bringing it into proportion with the rest of the United Kingdom. Arithmetically Scotland is still wildly over-represented, Wales slightly over-represented, England under- represented and Northern Ireland, in this respect, fairly represented. Lord Callaghan was trying to secure what Mr Major, according to Mr Dewar, has already obtained: the support of the Ulster Unionists.

But on 28 March 1979, in the vote of confidence which brought down the last Labour government, they voted with the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Scottish Nationalists. So also did the affable and courageous Gerry (now Lord) Fitt, who had supported the Callaghan government but turned against it in the most crucial division of all. He considered that the increase in Northern Ireland representation favoured the Unionists at the expense of his own party, the SDLP. Truly, "God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap": Galatians vi 7.

What happened on that occasion was that the Labour government became paralysed as a consequence of the Scottish referendum on devolution. The Scots had voted for it by a majority, but not by a majority sufficient to clear the hurdle that had previously been erected by the backbench Labour MP Mr George Cunningham. The Scottish Nationalists put down a motion of censure, the Conservatives (together with the other, smaller parties, though not the Welsh Nationalists) latched on to it and the government came down by one vote.

It was with some hesitation that the Conservatives had joined in the fun: not because of any theoretical views which they might hold on Scottish devolution but because they had put down previous motions of censure and been repulsed. This had been bad for the lads' morale. Hence Lady Thatcher wanted to be reasonably sure of winning. Even so, she would not have won if Lord Fitt had voted as he normally did and if a more elusive Irish MP, Frank Maguire, who was rarely seen on the premises, having licensed premises of his own to superintend in Ireland, had not crossed the sea expressly, as he put it, "to abstain in person" (though a switch by Lord Fitt alone would have been sufficient to see Lord Callaghan home).

Mr Dewar thinks now as Lady Thatcher did then. If he is going to put down a motion of censure, he must be reasonably sure of winning. Labour realised in 1983-90 that motions of no confidence which failed to come off were dispiriting. Time and again Mr Neil Kinnock would get up, only to be smartly knocked down by Lady Thatcher.

But in those days the parliamentary arithmetic was different. There was no purpose in putting down such a motion except to raise morale, which it never did. Today the Government's position resembles more that of Labour in 1979. The Conservatives won then because most of the opposition parties united on a single question. Is it impossible for Mr Ashdown, Mr Blair and Mr Trimble to find a similar one today? There was the Maastricht Bill in 1993 over which the Government was very nearly defeated. There is now corruption. There will soon be the votes on the Budget. My feeling is, however, that in his heart Mr Blair does not want to bring this Government down.