Mr Tony Blair averred that Prime Minister's Question Time was in need of fundamental revision and that he, insofar as it lay within his powers, proposed to transform it into an occasion of sweetness and light. Malice and uncharitableness would belong to the past. Mr John Major did not disagree, though he did not bind himself so strongly to be of good behaviour in the future.
As things turned out, this period of eerie calm was shorter than even I had expected. It did not take us up to the funeral. It lasted about three days. Once again, the Punch and Judy man set up his show on the Westminster sands (for, as Westminster boasts a pier, I do not see why it should be without sands). The parties went at each other like cats in a coalshed. As usually happens in such encounters, no one was seriously hurt. But there was a lot of noise.
More recently the fights have become more frequent, the yells louder. And that is just in the Conservative Party. Between Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, relations are as bad as they were between Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock, or Lord Home and Harold Wilson. There was an example at PMQs on Thursday.
On Tuesday Mr Blair had succeeded in embarrassing Mr Major over Europe. This admittedly is not difficult - embarrassing him over Europe or, indeed, over anything - though Mr Blair's predecessors, with the exception of Wilson, would have been entirely capable of making a hash of it. All this was legitimate and wholesome stuff. But Mr Blair neglected to build on this advantage on Thursday.
He could have, easily. Sir James Goldsmith's antics showed no signs of abating. Immediately after Tuesday's Questions, Mr Iain Duncan Smith had introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill to curb the powers of the European Court. For this to come about, we should have to amend the European Communities Act 1972 and set up a supreme constitutional court or, more likely, repeal the Act and leave the Community altogether - which is, I suspect, what Mr Duncan Smith and his chums really want. Bills of this kind are almost always introduced because of their publicity value rather than because their sponsors expect anything to be changed as a result.
So it was on this occasion. The Bill was rejected by 83 votes to 77, of whom 66 were Conservatives. The usual suspects in matters European number no more than 25, or 30 at the most. The rest included on Tuesday solid - sometimes, indeed, only too solid - citizens such as Sir Mark Lennox-Boyd, Sir Peter Lloyd and Dame Angela Rumbold. That is what would worry me if I were Mr Major, which thank the Lord I'm not, Sir. I should be more worried still by the agreement between Official and Democratic Unionists, with Mr David Trimble walking hand-in-hand through the division lobby with the Reverend Ian Paisley.
In short, Mr Blair had an abundant supply of custard pies available. No one would have objected if, trying to improve on his marksmanship of two days before, he had discharged a few more of them. Instead he chose to chuck a stink bomb. He had misjudged the House. It is these odd little moments that teach you about the way things are going in politics. I knew Lady Thatcher was in trouble not when Lord Howe made his resignation speech but, in the previous year, when he was greeted by a roar of approval from his own side on first taking his seat as Leader of the House after she had sacked him from the Foreign Office.
Likewise, I detected on Thursday not only a hatred of Mr Blair on the Conservative side, which may be no bad thing, but an unease about him on the Labour benches, which is more worrying. The comrades (if such a word is any longer permissible) went through the motions of cheering him on: but their hearts were not in it. They knew, as we knew, that Mr Blair had made a parliamentary mistake. It certainly enabled Mr Major to win the encounter easily. Mr Blair's error was to gloat over the Government's defeat on Wednesday night in the Divorce Reform Bill.
There is nothing wrong with gloating in the proper circumstances. I remember a Conservative conference during a Labour government which had been having some trouble with the trade unions. Sir Edward Heath had advised his party to refrain from gloating. Immediately afterwards I happened upon Lord Whitelaw on the Brighton prom. "Wrong to gloat," said Willie, "mustn't do it, no, no, no. Well, I can tell you, I'm gloating like hell."
Mr Blair's performance on Thursday was not of this good-natured variety. Indeed, he gave the impression of being a rather nasty piece of work. His effort was questionable in several other respects. It was notably disingenuous. For the Government had allowed a free vote on one of its own measures. This is a well-known procedure where the measure concerns sex, booze, hanging or religion. For some reason, our legislators are assumed to have consciences when these and adjacent matters, such as divorce, are under consideration, but not when they are deciding whether to lend their support to the government's declaration of war. Members of the People's Party have, over the years, been traditionally readier to invoke their consciences over one subject or another.
"Funny thing I found the other day at the back of the drawer, Fred. What d'you make of it?"
"Give us a look. Why, that's your conscience, Bert."
"Is that it then? Should come in useful in the defence debate next week."
Such convenient discoveries led CR Attlee to remark that he had always understood conscience to be a still, small voice rather than a megaphone. Extending Attlee's scepticism, the harpies who were making much of the running in the party a decade or so ago wanted changes in the law of abortion to be incorporated into party policy and made immune from any conscience clause.
We all know that Mr Blair is running a tight ship. As I indicated last week, one can have a certain sympathy with him in a pre-election period. But does this mean that a Blair government would be as intolerant of any internal dissent as Labour governments traditionally were, before Richard Crossman and John Silkin (as, respectively, Leader of the House and Chief Whip in the late 1960s) deliberately introduced an element of tolerance into the party? I suspect it does indeed mean this and that, in this respect at least, new Labour is old Labour writ large.Reuse content