Alan Watkins: Mr Brown could have 'bastards' of his own

Squabbles over Maastricht fatally weakened John Major. The Lisbon treaty could yet wound the current Prime Minister
Click to follow
The Independent Online

T he state opening of Parliament comes round like the Eurovision Song Contest and, usually, with as little purpose. That daft Cap of Maintenance is carried around hither and yon, and no one can provide a sensible explanation or, indeed, an explanation of any kind about what it is supposed to be doing there. The commentator often tells us too that Her Majesty is being conveyed in the Irish state coach. Why, I should like to know, is she being transported in an Irish coach, when she is opening the United Kingdom Parliament? It does not make sense.

The proceedings might have possessed greater interest if the Queen had been reading out what was written on behalf of a new prime minister and a new government. Alas, unless Mr Gordon Brown's speechwriters spring a few surprises, we shall have heard it all before. New Labour's habit of serving up the leftovers, not once but as often as it can get away with, has persisted into the new regime.

Various proposals of a constitutional character have already gone the rounds, not once but twice, first, when Mr Brown succeeded Mr Tony Blair and, then, when Mr Brown decided not to call an election and there was an attempted relaunch from No 10.

Mr Alistair Darling's proposals on inheritance tax and on other fiscal changes were certainly part of the Brown relaunch. But they were, rather, tacked on to the ideas that had been floating around since July. Indeed, Mr Darling's innovations would have made greater sense, politically, if Mr Brown had after all decided to hold an election this month instead of hanging on till 2009 or even 2010.

What was the need for rush, if there was not to be an election? Neither Mr Darling nor Mr Brown has come up with anything approaching a satisfactory explanation. For Mr Brown, to cancel the election was bad enough. He deprived himself of dignity, as James Callaghan did in 1978. What was worse was that he went on to steal the Opposition's policies when there was no pressing need to do anything of the kind, because there was not going to be an election.

I am not, I may say, arguing for the maintenance of death duties at their existing, pre-reformed level. Nor am I pretending that the proposals first made by Mr George Osborne at the Tory conference would begin to "unravel" as soon as they came to be examined closely by the brainboxes of the treasury. That was the initial line taken by No 10, which was followed by many of my colleagues in the press.

Within days, the line changed when the findings of the opinion polls had emerged. It may be that the results of the Chancellor's deliberations cannot be anticipated in the Queen's Speech. But this year the Chancellor's autumn statement came before the speech from the throne. It had been advanced in time precisely because of the possibility of an election. The result is that ministers have less to talk about than they would have had otherwise.

It is fairly clear that, for the next year, the proceedings of the House will be dominated by the Lisbon treaty and the calls for a referendum. In 1992-93 there was a similar period, when the Treaty of Maastricht was under consideration. My guess is that the feelings are not so intense on the Conservative side as they were on the previous occasion, and that the consequences will not prove so damaging to the Prime Minister's authority as they turned out to be with John Major.

There are, to be sure, predictions on the government side to the effect that Mr David Cameron's position will be questioned by his own side – that the Tories will once again find themselves in a terrible tangle over Europe. But it seems to me that the conditions cannot be reproduced. The most significant difference is that Labour is now in government: it is the perpetually fractious Conservative Party that is in opposition. And the party is less fractious thanit was.

It was Sir John, as he then wasn't, who remarked: "We don't want three more of the bastards out there." He said this to ITN's then political editor, Mr Michael Brunson, when they were off the air. It was later reported by Mr Paul Routledge. It was never completely clear to whom Sir John was referring, but the consensus was that they were Mr Michael Howard, Mr Peter Lilley and Mr Michael Portillo. The other bastards, on the back benches, were more numerous and included Mr Iain Duncan Smith, though he was never among the principal rebels.

The leader of the Opposition was John Smith. He was ably assisted by George (later Lord) Robertson and by a young backbencher by the name of Geoff Hoon, who had lately arrived from the European Parliament. The Labour Opposition concentrated its efforts on the Social Chapter, which had been omitted in the UK version from the original treaty negotiated in December 1991. These "opt outs" had brought about the boast "game, set and match" which had been made either by Sir John or by somebody else on his behalf.

His successors, first Mr Blair and then Mr Brown, made the same kind of boast, with the substitution of "red lines" for opt out. The motive was exactly the same: to try to keep in with Mr Rupert Murdoch's newspapers and with other papers holding similar opinions.

At this earlier period, however – I am thinking of the time when Smith was still leader – Labour had no real expectation of securing Mr Murdoch's favour. Accordingly Labour could support the modification of the Maastricht Treaty to include the Social Chapter, not exactly with a clear conscience (for conscience did not enter into the matter), but to embarrass the Conservatives.

This the opposition proceeded to do, aided by the rebels on what was then the government side. On 22 July 1993, in the debate on the Social Chapter, the government lost by eight votes. On the next day, on a vote of confidence, it won by 40. The government had started out at the 1992 election with a majority of 21; by 1997 it had lost its majority completely.

Mr Brown's position is much more comfortable. Even so, things are still likely to go wrong somewhere along the line. One of the many paradoxes of constitutional thinking among enlightened persons is that the House of Commons is supposed to be composed of independent members; whereas, once the house asserts its independence, it is accused of being irresponsible, the prime minister charged with being weak. There is an analogy with the 19th-century idea that, while nationalism striving is invariably virtuous, nationalism gained is always to be deplored.

The fate of being considered weak was that which Sir John suffered in 1993 and which was prolonged until 1997. Mr Brown may, of course, lose the next election likewise. But it will not be because his party has asserted its independence in the House of Commons; far from it.