The beast has stirred and walks on Labour's dreams

There are, I am told, people in the Government who are urging Mr Tony Blair to put off the election from May 2001 to October of the same year.
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Or, if they are not actually urging him - because they cannot manage to get close enough to tell him - they are murmuring to one another that this is what he ought to do. Things, they say, will be "better" by then. To which the May men (and women) in the Government reply: are things not good enough as they are, the economy in better condition than it ever has been before at this stage of a Labour administration?

Or, if they are not actually urging him - because they cannot manage to get close enough to tell him - they are murmuring to one another that this is what he ought to do. Things, they say, will be "better" by then. To which the May men (and women) in the Government reply: are things not good enough as they are, the economy in better condition than it ever has been before at this stage of a Labour administration?

Well, yes. But, as Mr Peter Mandelson admitted in his Herbert Morrison lecture last week, the Government has not yet "delivered" on the promises that were made before 1997. Indeed, it is only Ms Polly Toynbee of the Guardian who believes that it has. If Comrade Mandelson remains sceptical, how does he imagine the rest of us feel? But by October of next year, the theory goes, the benefits of Mr Blair will be universally apparent.

Besides, autumn is somehow the natural, the appropriate, season for Labour to have an election. Late spring or early summer is, by contrast, the Tory season. I record this traditional piece of Labour folk-wisdom without necessarily endorsing it, for it is surely curious. The party won its greatest post-war victories in July, March and May in, respectively, 1945, 1966 and 1997.

Ministers would not be talking in this way if it had not been for the stirring events of last September. They looked, not perhaps into the abyss, but at a world which they devoutly hoped they had put behind them for at least eight years - a world of crowded underground stations, of queuing for buses in the rain instead of being conveyed hither and yon in shiny black cars and being able to say, as in Matthew viii.9: Go, and he goeth. If they did carry on inhabiting such an agreeable universe, it would have to be with the continuing approval of Mr Charles Kennedy and his Liberal Democrats.

Consider this projection: Labour 329, Conservatives 276, Liberal Democrats 23, SNP 6, Plaid Cymru 6, Others 19. I am not saying this is going to happen; making no predictions of any kind, certainly not at this stage; but merely stating that such an outcome seemed entirely plausible immediately before the start of the conference season. Mr Blair would have lost his majority and could govern, at a pinch, with the support of one or both of the nationalist parties. A more probable arrangement would be with the Liberal Democrats.

There are some cynical spirits who maintain that this is precisely what Mr Blair would like to see come about. "The Project" would be fulfilled because there was no other choice. The alternative vote (ballot papers marked 1, 2, 3, ...) would then be pushed through, as it very nearly was by the Labour government of 1929 till the financial crisis of 1931 supervened. The Liberal Democrats would duly increase their representation at the election of 2005-6, bringing it above its present 46, which had been halved in 2001. The Labour members would go up too. And the Conservatives would be back in the position they occupy today, or in a worse one, like that of, say, the King of Greece.

Mr Blair cannot say this out loud, because he will get into terrible trouble if he does. But the famous Project depends for its successful implementation on the existence of a minority Labour government. Nothing else will serve the purpose. Even Mr Blair at his bossiest - or, as his friends would put it, his most charmingly persuasive - would not be able to force Labour into any kind of parliamentary alliance with the Liberal Democrats if it had any chance of governing on its own.

Thus after 1964 Jo Grimond, the true begetter of the Project, found himself in the position of a pretty girl waiting to be asked to dance. He remained a wallflower, even though Harold Wilson had a majority of only four. When Grimond said in 1965 that "our teeth are in the real [not, as in some versions, the red] meat", he was not being entirely truthful. Wilson and his colleagues carried on as if the Liberals did not exist.

After the first 1974 election an alliance with the 14 Liberals in the House would still have left Wilson three short of an absolute majority. In any case he would not have tried to form one. He went instead for an election in October of that year which did not produce the comfortable majority he and his colleagues had expected but a majority of three.

By the middle of 1976 the majority had disappeared altogether. In the next year his successor, James Callaghan, and David Steel formed the Lib-Lab pact, which kept Labour in business, more or less, till 1978 and, after its disbandment, up to the 1979 election. The Liberals got precious little out of it except a tantalising glimpse of the black stocking tops of power.

Since the events of September the chances of having a minority Labour government are not quite so much talked about. It is as if a great beast had emerged from its lair, roared its head off, pawed the ground, frightened the natives and retreated after a few weeks' exposure into the cave, whence there can still be heard menacing noises. The beast in question is not made up of lorry drivers, however ferocious their demeanour may have been, but of millions of citizens, most of them with cars, all of them with strong opinions about what a government should do. These are not the natives but the beast itself: the alarmed inhabitants of whom I speak are Mr Blair and his colleagues.

We can all agree that we should not commit illegal acts and that the law should be upheld. Even so, the consequences of being "tough", as Mr Jack Straw proclaims he intends to be, are politically very uncertain. Wilson was tough in 1966 with the seamen's union, which then numbered Mr John Prescott among its leaders. The prime minister behaved in this way to impress the foreign holders of sterling. As things turned out, his action had precisely the opposite effect and was the primary cause of the sterling crisis and the consequential July measures.

Edward Heath tried, none too successfully, to be tough with the miners and asked: who governs Britain? Faced with a silly question, the voters gave a silly answer, and turned him out without putting Wilson in. In 1978-79 the Callaghan government was paralysed and duly lost the ensuing general election, though it was not the winter's events which brought that contest about.

After 1981 the effects of the inner-city riots were rapidly neutralised by the Falklands War. In the strike of 1984-85 the miners' union and the Thatcher government each behaved unlawfully. We saw both flying pickets and flying policemen. Under the superintendence of Leon Brittan we had in effect, for the first time in our history, a national police force.

Mr Straw proposes, if I understand him correctly, to revive this branch of the constabulary if matters become too difficult in the next few weeks. The miners' strike did the Conservative government no harm, though it left a nasty taste in the mouth. A brave showing by Chief Inspector Straw may do the present government no harm either. But it could all so easily go terribly wrong. The political consequences of civil disorder remain highly speculative. Those of a petrol shortage are less so. Mr Blair and the Government will be blamed once again.

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