Some advice for the wavering backbencher

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There is nothing new about governments at odds with their backbenchers over some item of legislation. Indeed, there is a constant and healthy tension between the view that the government, embodying the will of the people in a general election, should have its way in the end, and the view that it is a principal function of the Commons (likewise elected bv the people) to act as a curb on the government.

The Churchill administration of 1951-55, for instance, wanted to increase judges' salaries. A majority of the backbenchers objected. The chairman of the 1922 Committee, a young barrister called Derek Walker-Smith, was summoned to see the Prime Minister.

"Young man," Churchill said, "I must inform you that the measure to which you object is part of government policy and that it will be forced through the House."

"In that case, sir," Walker-Smith replied, "I must tell you that we shall vote against it."

There was a pause.

"Ah," Churchill said. "That places an entirely different complexion upon the matter."

For the moment, the judges were denied their rise, though they got something in the end.

But the example that has been cited most frequently in relation to Mr Tony Blair and top-up fees is that of Harold Wilson, Barbara Castle and In Place of Strife. Wilson and Mrs Castle published this White Paper (the title was a crib from Aneurin Bevan's book In Place of Fear) which provided for various sanctions against an unruly trade union movement.

First of all the Cabinet supported it and then wobbled. James Callaghan opposed it outright and was expelled by Wilson from the Inner Cabinet, or "Parliamentary Committee" as it was called. Douglas Houghton, the chairman of the parliamentary party, told Wilson that the lads were not having it. The trade unions were, naturally, opposed to it as well. It was duly withdrawn in favour of a solemn-and-binding agreement between government and unions. "Who's this Solomon Binding, then?" the brothers from the branches would quip.

During the controversy about the proposals, the picture most often conjured up was that of the piano, even then the supreme symbol of working-class respectability, being removed from the front room of a brave trade unionist by agents of the courts. In vain did Mrs Castle protest that she was uninterested in pianos; was not in the market for pianos. The damage was done. In a contest between a White Paper and a piano she stood no chance and was duly crushed against the parlour wall.

While all this was going on, Wilson had been saying it was a matter of life and death, back me or sack me, and so forth. In the event he accepted defeat, remained Prime Minister, as he was perfectly entitled to do, and went on unexpectedly to lose the 1970 election.

It is now the wisdom of the wise that he would have won it if he had defied party and movement alike and, with a majority of just under 100, pushed the measure through. This I very much doubt: either that he could have pushed it through or that, if he had, it would have produced an immediate beneficial effect. After all, Edward Heath's comparable legislation of the early 1970s proved a fiasco. We had to wait a further 10 years, for a different climate and different ministers - Margaret Thatcher, Jim Prior, Norman Tebbit - before the unions could be brought under legislative control.

Wilson not only asked to be backed or sacked and, in the end, stayed. He also threatened his recalcitrant troops with a general election. Mr John Major made exactly the same threat in the troubles over the Maastricht Bill in 1992-93. The unstated premise of the threat is that the government is going to lose the election or, at least, a large number of seats. Accordingly, it concentrates the backbencher's mind wonderfully. Like the rest of us, he prefers a quiet life.

But a moment's reflection will expose the fugitive character of this particular item from the Prime Minister's tool kit. If the rebels are going to lose their seats, it is equally probable that he is going to lose his tenancy of No 10 - possibly, his own seat as well. He is cutting off his tenure of office to spite his backbenchers.

When Mr Major made his threat, one of his colleagues remarked: "We wouldn't have let him get halfway down the Mall." No dissolution has been refused since 1832. Even so, there is no doubt that the Queen has the right to do precisely that. In Victorian times dissolution was a collective decision for the Cabinet. Gradually the decision has been assumed by the Prime Minister himself, assisted by a mixed bag of personal aides, experts on public opinion and, often, complete charlatans. If a dissolution were being requested on grounds of pique - such as a parliamentary defeat over top-up fees - and if, moreover, a majority of the Cabinet were against it, Her Majesty would be quite within her rights to refuse. The Prime Minister could then carry on or resign.

If Mr Blair wants to bring himself down, as distinct from the entire Government, he is fully entitled to do so. Elizabeth II might persuade him to carry on, as her grandfather George V successfully - and wrongly - persuaded Ramsay MacDonald. Who can tell? But it is more likely Mr Blair would accept defeat and call for a vote of confidence instead. This is what Mr Major did after a defeat on the Maastricht Bill in July 1993. He combined the vote of confidence in one division on the next day with a restoration of the original provision.

Lord Callaghan could have tried a simple vote of confidence in March 1979 but desisted, taking the view that, as the House had voted against him on a censure motion, it would be wrong to ask for another vote. Wilson had no need for any vote of confidence in 1969 because the trade-union proposals had not been defeated in any legislative form: they had not reached that stage. And Lady Thatcher's vote of confidence on the poll tax (and other things) did not occur on the floor of the House but in the committee corridor upstairs; she lost it.

There is little doubt in my mind that, after a defeat on the floor over top-up fees, Mr Blair would win a vote of confidence next day. But he might not be able to combine this, Major-like, with a restoration of top-up fees. In such circumstances, would he want to continue? He has already told us that, if he had lost the March vote on Iraq, he would have left No 10. I am not so sure of that myself, but this is what he says. He now hints, without being over-firm about it, that he will depart likewise if he is defeated on top-up fees. My advice to wavering backbenchers is: suck it and see.