Humbugs by the pound, when we needed gobstoppers

Political Commentary
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The Independent Online
There were several fine pieces of humbug, collector's items, on display at or around Prime Minister's Questions last Thursday. They were brought out of the glass-fronted cabinet after the news of the concession secured from Mr Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary for Health, by Sir John Gorst and Mr Hugh Dykes, who sit respectively for Hendon North and Harrow East. This was that the casualty department of the Edgware hospital should be kept open, despite plans to close it. If the concession had not been granted, Sir John and Mr Dykes would have sat on their hands and refused to support the Government in the lobbies; or so they informed Mr Dorrell. At all events, the minister was sufficiently convinced to change his scheme.

The news leaked out on Wednesday. Apparently it was Sir John who was the source: the innocent source, he insists. He did not want to make vainglorious boasts about his and Mr Dykes's victory over - some might say, humiliation of - the Executive. He merely confided in a journalist. The low fellow promptly put what Sir John had told him into his paper, because it seemed quite interesting. Sir John is now talking of going to the Press Complaints Commission with a charge of breach of confidence.

This was the first piece of humbug. If Sir John does not want to get into the papers, he should keep quiet. This is the robust attitude which the commission's chairman, Lord Wakeham, has taken in previous comparable cases. It will be surprising if he changes his view.

The second and third pieces of humbug were displayed by Mr Alastair Goodlad, the Chief Whip, and by the Conservative backbenchers at their weekly Thursday meeting. These may conveniently be taken together because, though the sources of the humbug were different, its nature was the same. For the real sin of Sir John and Mr Dykes was not to threaten Mr Dorrell but to threaten him successfully and, even more reprehensibly, to allow the news of the success to come out.

Mr Goodlad is of medium height but powerful build. Such hair as he retains is red. He is very rich and a closet "wet". One of his closest friends from Cambridge days is Lord Irvine, the shadow Lord Chancellor. He is reminiscent of a Tory from a more spacious era, such as Arthur Box-Bender in Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour. But he is more intelligent.

The new constitutional doctrine which Mr Goodlad advanced was that, in straitened circumstances such as those the Government finds itself in, it was certainly wrong and probably unconstitutional for backbenchers to threaten its majority by making demands of ministers. The beauty of this doctrine is that it places the blame entirely on the backbencher. The luckless minister is, according to the Goodlad Doctrine, as defenceless as ... well, as a helpless woman being raped at knifepoint by a couple of ruffians from North London.

But surely in these circumstances the minister, at any rate, can say No. He can even call upon his friends, including Mr Goodlad, to render assistance. In this sad case he does not appear to have taken either course. Nevertheless, Mr Goodlad exempts Mr Dorrell from his strictures. The minister had no choice in the matter; or so it seems. This is not at all surprising, when you come to think about it. For Mr Dorrell is a member of the Government. So is Mr Goodlad. And, even in these fissiparous Tory times, members of the Government try to stick together.

The fourth and fifth pieces of humbug came from the leaders of the opposition parties, from Mr Paddy Ashdown and Mr Tony Blair. They both took the obvious point, partly, no doubt, because they are both rather obvious people, and partly also because, in this modern political world of television and anger, it is only the obvious which has any chance of being broadcast on the evening television news, with the possible exception of Channel 4 News. Even in gentler times, the opportunity would have been too good to miss. We can all write the script: "Government on its last legs ... total collapse of authority ... squalid deals ... surrender to blackmail." We can write it more or less in our sleep. It is easy. But is it correct?

The merits of the case do not, admittedly, affect the principle. But they none the less possess a certain persuasive value. It was not as if Sir John and Mr Dykes had secured a promise from Mr Dorrell to introduce at the earliest convenient opportunity the Slaughter of the Firstborn (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. What they were doing was keeping open a casualty department. This is the kind of question that Mr Ashdown, Mr Blair and their shadow ministers pursue at often tedious length themselves.

And what of the principle? It is about whether and to what extent Parliament can or should control the Executive. The liberal view is ambivalent. It resembles the enlightened view of nationalism in the 19th century and, for that matter, today. Nationalism striving is virtuous: whereas nationalism successful is vicious. Likewise, it is a splendid idea for backbenchers to show more independence of the Whips: but when they actually set about it they become an "unrepresentative minority" frustrating the democratic will of the people as expressed in their choice of government through a general election.

This ambivalence was particularly evident during the passage of the Maastricht Bill in 1992-93. The largely Europhile Prig Press united with those Conservative papers which were supporting the Government more reluctantly in condemning the "cranks" on the Conservative side who were impeding the progress of this beneficent measure.

Mr Ashdown's brand of humbug was perhaps stronger than Mr Blair's. For Liberals have traditionally believed in parliamentary control of government, though their failure to form a government of any kind since 1915 certainly has something to do with this view. Moreover, if Mr Ashdown were to be presented with the House of Commons of Liberal Democrat dreams, chosen by proportional representation, what is certain is that no one party would ever again hold a majority. Power would be acquired by the Gorsts and Dykes of this world.

The charge against Mr Blair is slightly different. Labour with a majority has never believed in indulging individual backbenchers. There was a perceptible change over PR in the late 1980s, when it appeared that Lady Thatcher was going on for ever. Now that it looks as if Labour is to form the next government, enthusiasm has waned, though a referendum is still promised. But when it came to doing deals, the master was Lord Callaghan in 1976-79. Mr Blair would behave in precisely the same way if he found himself in that position. The interesting question is whether Mr Dorrell's surrender makes Mr John Major's survival into 1997 more or less likely. What it really shows is not so much that he can make Callaghanesque deals as that, rather, his majority is fragile.