Alan Watkins: For the Tories, it gets worse by the week

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The Independent Online

Even on this bank-holiday Sunday they are going on all over the land, exchanges of this sort:

"You think people respect you, but you don't know what they say about you behind your back."

"Go on, what do they say about me behind my back?''

"They laugh at you, that's what they do."

"You're a fine one to talk, I must say. I've stayed quiet as a mouse for the last 10 years."

"Oh you've been quiet all right. Whenever there's any trouble you're off somewhere else."

"Shut up for God's sake."

"You make me sick."

"I hate you."

People do not want this kind of thing from the Tories because they have quite enough of it at home. Usually these rows – what the papers call "arguments" – are conducted behind closed doors with the children upstairs (where they none the less manage to hear what is going on). The Conservatives, not content with going out into the garden where everyone can hear, have hired the local park, complete with the most up-to-date amplification equipment.

I was about to write that there has been nothing like it since Benn v Healey (Silkin intervening) in 1981. But compared to Clarke v Duncan Smith, that previous Labour fight was a demonstration of good order and party discipline. And James Callaghan followed Harold Wilson in 1976 as decorously as a lady from Jane Austen who had at last succeeded in marrying the curate. So I could go on but will desist. Much as the pre-war Manchester Guardian wondered whether the Greeks really wanted a stable government, so one is entitled to conclude that the Tories do not really want to conduct a dignified election.

In June one might also have concluded that, for them, things could not become any worse. But they have, they have: with every week that passes they get worse. This is not to say that what has been uttered in the last few days is without its interest for the earnest seeker of the truth. On the contrary: it is fascinating to the candid observer of the passing scene.

For instance, while it was common knowledge at Westminster that Lady Thatcher and Mr John Major were not regular or, for that matter, even occasional dining companions, few realised the bitterness of the feelings which they entertained for each other. Mr Major's abundant supply of bile came as a particular surprise. He accuses her not only of leaving him with a recession on his hands but also of inciting the new MPs of 1992 to be disloyal to him over the Maastricht Bill. On both questions I will now say a word in defence of the old girl.

Certainly she – or Nigel Lawson – left him with a recession. But he had himself succeeded Lord Lawson in 1989 and Lady Thatcher in 1990. And he won the 1992 election despite the recession. As for those new MPs she is supposed to have encouraged to rebel, there were only five of the 1992 intake in a big cast: Messrs Bernard Jenkin, Barry Legg, Walter Sweeney, John Whittingdale and Iain Duncan Smith. While Sir Teddy Taylor, Mr William Cash and Mr Nicholas Winterton voted against the government 48, 47 and 46 times respectively, Mr Duncan Smith rebelled on 11 occasions only.

What is more interesting – it was certainly the most significant event of last week – is that, during Wednesday's Newsnight encounter, Mr Kenneth Clarke forced Mr Duncan Smith to admit that he would "never" vote for membership of the euro. From some of Thursday's papers, one might have thought that Mr Duncan Smith had confessed to being a bondage fetishist or even a Millwall supporter, so damaging were his words thought to have been.

This kind of response derives from Mr Worldly Wiseman's view that it is always a mistake for a politician to commit himself unequivocally to any specific course of action or, in Mr Duncan Smith's case, inaction. Admittedly it is unwise to say "never", as was discovered by the late Lord Colyton, previously known as "Never-Say-Never'' Hopkinson. Even so, by his words Mr Duncan Smith may have added to rather than derogated from his appeal to the strange electorate he is trying to reach.

What is true is that the gap between the candidates is even wider than we thought before. The consensus – from Tory-supporting editorials to the studio audiences so clumsily assembled by the Newsnight apparatchiks – is that this European gap does not matter and that the candidates should talk about something else. Simple, honest folk are not interested in the subject. That is what the last election is supposed to have shown, after all.

Well, yes and no. Obviously it is pointless to make speeches about topics in which people are uninterested. And oppositions should not pretend they are governments – a mistake Labour used to make regularly over defence. At the same time, a question (what we have been taught to call an "issue", even though it may not be in contention between the parties) is not unimportant merely because most people are bored by it or fail to understand it. The most important issue between the end of the war in 1945 and the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1972 was the maintenance of sterling as a reserve currency with a fixed exchange rate.

The euro is slightly easier to understand. Currencies, however, remain odd things. In GCSE mode: if four apples buy two pears, and two pears buy one orange, how many apples does it take to buy an orange? Four, you will reply, quick as a flash. But it does not always seem to work like that. It may be three or five, depending on the orange or dollar market.

Neither Mr Tony Blair nor Mr Clarke concerns himself much with questions of this kind. They are both men of the wide canvas and the broad brush. But if Mr Clarke is declared the winner next month, Mr Blair will inevitably be more inclined to hold a referendum on the euro. The Conservatives will be confronted with the choice of supporting the Labour Party (for the Government as such has no formal status) or opposing it or taking no position at all, which, Mr Clarke informs us, will be his less than heroic posture on the Nice Treaty. If they adopt this last stance, they can neither receive nor spend any of the cash allowed by the legislation.

Whichever line they take, Mr Clarke himself seems bound to be on the same side as Mr Blair. The conditions of the 1975 referendum will have been reproduced, the forces of sanity apparently all on one side. I am now off for a few weeks to study the effects of the Common Agricultural Policy on provincial France and shall be back for the Liberal Democrat Conference.

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