Boo! Hiss! Gordon and Tony's euro-panto

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The Independent Online

The senior mistress of the mixed grammar school in Carmarthenshire which I attended long ago once remarked of one of my livelier fellow pupils:

"That girl is much too fond of drawing attention to herself."

The words, I have always thought, could be applied with equal justice to Ms Clare Short. There are several aspects to her. There is, for example, Ms Short the standard bearer of the Old Left. But this view is not entirely simple. I well remember her, at a Labour conference some years ago, eloquently even if a little uneasily supporting the exclusion from the party list of another blameless leftist, Ms Liz Davies.

Then there is Clare the constitutional expert – one of that galère, partly charlatans, partly ordinary historians such as Dr David Starkey, who pop up on our television screens from time to time to advise the Queen about where her duty lies. In her resignation speech Ms Short told the House that the Cabinet was now one of the dignified parts of the constitution. This was not a straight lift from Walter Bagehot but, rather, from R H S Crossman's Introduction, written in 1963, to the Fontana edition of Bagehot's English Constitution.

Bagehot had originally written in 1867 that the Cabinet was one of the efficient parts of the constitution, in contrast to the Monarchy, which was one of the dignified parts. In 1962 the late Labour MP John Mackintosh published The British Cabinet, which concluded that the real work of the Cabinet was no longer carried out at its meetings but in cabinet committees. This book much impressed Crossman, who made copious use of it in the Introduction which he had been engaged to write for the reissue of Bagehot's work. Mackintosh may even have helped him write it.

But only Crossman would have possessed the journalistic flair to wake them up at the back of the class by saying that Bagehot was now out of date because the Cabinet had joined the Monarchy as one of the dignified parts of the constitution. Whether Ms Short was apprised of all this meta-constitutional history I do not know. It seemed at times that she thought she was quoting Bagehot, whereas in fact she was quoting Crossman on Bagehot.

But is it true? The theory of the replacement of cabinet – or prime ministerial – government by presidential government first surfaced in the early 1960s, when Harold Macmillan was at No 10. If Mackintosh did not originate it, as he may not have done, his book certainly lent powerful support to the new view. This was taken up enthusiastically not only by Crossman but also by assorted political academics. The most powerful dissenting voices did not come from politicians but more from journalists: notably from Henry Fairlie in The Life of Politics and Ronald Butt in The Power of Parliament.

Since then the controversy – if it really is a genuine controversy, for there are times when it seems more of a hardy perennial, like the Eurovision Song Contest – has come up every five years or so. We have had 40 years of it now, enough time for two rules to be enunciated. Whether we are supposed to be living under a system of presidential government depends, first, on the personality of the Prime Minister and, second, on the size of the parliamentary majority which he or she enjoys. In reality these are not separate tests, for one is a function of the other: a Prime Minister with a large majority inevitably seems more imposing than one with a small majority or none at all.

The only exception is provided by Alec Home, who had a majority of 90 in 1963-64 but was never, as far as I know, described as a presidential figure. Whether John Major would have been so described if he had enjoyed a big majority is open to question. As he did not, we cannot tell. Edward Heath had a workable majority and James Callaghan, for most of the time, no majority: neither was called presidential. Our supposedly presidential Prime Ministers all possessed large majorities: Macmillan, Harold Wilson in 1966-70 (though not in 1964-66 or 1974-76), Margaret Thatcher and, now, Tony Blair.

The theory took its heaviest knock in November 1990, when Mrs Thatcher, a Prime Minister with a large majority and in good (at any rate, physical) health was dislodged partly by her parliamentary colleagues but mainly by her colleagues in the Cabinet. The same thing could happen to Mr Blair. I do not expect it will. But the machinery is there – a simple card vote at the party conference calling for an election – though I had practically to tear apart Labour headquarters with my bare hands to discover precisely what it was.

This conveniently brings us to the last aspect of Ms Short, her position in relation to Mr Gordon Brown: certainly supporter, clearly confidante, possibly catspaw, who can tell? I do not believe that her resignation was part of some dastardly plot to make Mr Brown leader. How on earth could it be? But her speech – compendium of constitutional error though it may have been – certainly succeeded in embarrassing Mr Blair.

It may be that this extraordinary pantomime would have happened anyway, of circulating to the entire Cabinet a 2,500-page Treasury statement which is almost as long as Gibbon's Roman Empire. It certainly restores the notion of cabinet government. It is also, surely, what the Bill of Rights calls a cruel and unusual punishment. I doubt whether many of them will be prepared to undergo it. Mr Robin Cook might have been, but he is no longer about the place.

If Mr Blair were a presidential figure, he would not be bothering with this kind of exercise. With "Cabinet forced to read 2,500 pages in two days" we are in a world of fantasy that might have been created by "Beachcomber". But what it does is lock Mr Blair's colleagues into any decision on the euro which he and Mr Brown may reach, irrespective of whether the colleagues have read these fiendish documents or not. If Mr Blair were a presidential figure, he would not be bothering with Mr Brown either. The Chancellor and his allies have almost certainly overplayed their hand in saying that Gordon would decide. Last week Mr Brown was backpedalling: saying, correctly, that the 1997 policy was that the Cabinet would decide after the assessment of the five distinctly subjective tests had been completed by the Treasury.

This last has now happened. The verdict is the traditional one where Europe is concerned, of unripe time. For Mr Blair, the prize is not so much a referendum as the non-exclusion of a referendum. For a supposedly presidential figure, it does not seem much of a prize.