It's already later than you think, Prime Minister

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The Independent Online
It is difficult at first to absorb the sheer scale of what has happened. Six weeks ago I put the Labour majority at 60. As the campaign went on, and the opinion polls showed no real sign of moving in the Conservative direction, I increased my forecast to 80. On polling day itself I was prepared to say "over a hundred" but not to be more specific. I certainly did not expect Labour to win the majority it has done.

Nor did Mr Tony Blair or any of his entourage expect it. At 43 (44 on Tuesday) he has won a more spectacular victory than C R Attlee in 1945 or Harold Wilson in 1966 - the only two previous occasions when Labour has secured a large or even a comfortable majority. Edgbaston for the first time, Wimbledon for goodness sake, Hove of all places: today Labour seats, every one. It is an astonishing achievement.

Mr Paddy Ashdown's performance is, if anything, even more astounding. The Liberal Democrats have put up the best show since the Liberals in 1929, when they won 59 seats. They have done better than the Liberals in February 1974, who obtained 19 per cent of the vote but won only 14 seats, or the Liberals and Social Democrats (trading as the Alliance) in 1983, who obtained 25 per cent of the vote but won only 23 seats. Mr Ashdown has won 46 seats with a mere 17 per cent of the vote.

This suggests that some of the credit should go not to Mr Ashdown or even Mr Blair but to the voters. They were determined to get rid of the Conservative government and behaved accordingly. Contrary to expectations, they embraced tactical voting on a scale never before seen in a general election.

True, there was talk of arrangements made, deals done, in various parts of the country. Indeed, Lord Holme for the Liberal Democrats adopted the somewhat absurd position that, while it was all right for Labour supporters to vote Liberal Democrat in certain constituencies, it was reprehensible for Liberal Democrats to vote Labour in any circumstances whatever. As the results I have already mentioned show, the voters did not always choose to follow Lord Holme's advice. They voted Labour instead.

But the received wisdom was also that they would not vote Liberal Democrat at all, except in a few seats. Mr Blair, by creating New Labour virtually single-handed, had not only done for Mr John Major. He had done for Mr Ashdown as well. For what was the point of voting Liberal Democrat, unless you were an unreconstructed Croslandite who happened to believe in the public ownership of the railways? Mr Blair had made a party which was, to a Conservative voter who was thinking of defecting or even to a former supporter of the Alliance, a more agreeable choice than the Liberal Democrats. That, at any rate, was the theory. In practice Mr Ashdown finds himself the most successful leader since David Lloyd George (who was Prime Minister of a coalition in 1916-22 and never entered No 10 again, but by 1929 had returned to the Liberals as leader).

Yet if Mr Ashdown unexpectedly prospers, Mr Major is certainly down and out. He may, however, still exercise some influence over a choice of successor. It has been suggested that he intends to prefer Mr Chris Patten. I cannot see this myself: not so much because Mr Major would be averse to Mr Patten as because any candidate has to take the previous step of becoming a member of the House of Commons. In the short time available, and with the electorate in its present mood, I cannot see any constituency obediently choosing Mr Patten in the first place or voting for him afterwards.

In any case, Mr Major's preferred candidate is also said to be Mr Michael Heseltine, as a reward for long service and, more recently, good conduct. Mr Heseltine has one golden advantage: he has actually managed to retain his seat. Mr Michael Portillo has not. Nor have Mr Malcolm Rifkind and other old lags whom it would be tedious to enumerate. So it looks like being a contest between Mr Heseltine and Mr John Redwood with Mr Kenneth Clarke cheerfully shoving in his oar.

The object of the party ought now to be to become what it was in its great days - thoroughly boring. Unhealthy excitement set in with Lady Thatcher. For a time it had a stimulating effect: but after 1987 the seeds of self-destruction were sown, after 1990 they germinated and after 1992 they bloomed, with the consequences we saw last Thursday.

The Tory temptation will now be to despair. Already the prognostications have started, to the effect that Mr Blair or perhaps an even newer Labour successor may be in power for 10, 15, even 20 years. There is always this kind of talk after a massive victory by either party. When it is the Conservative Party that has won, it is often (though not invariably) justified: for instance, the elections of 1931, 1951 and 1979 produced periods of Conservative rule of, respectively, 14, 13 and 18 years, even if in the first of these periods the administration was called a national and, later, a coalition government.

Radical governments produce no comparable pattern. Apparently unassailable majorities can disappear at the subsequent general election like the snow of the mountains in the springtime. Thus the 1906 Liberal government lasted for four years, the 1945 and 1966 Labour governments for, respectively, five and four years. After 1910 the Liberals survived another five years with a much-reduced majority, until the first wartime coalition was formed under H H Asquith. After 1950 Attlee's second administration went on for another 18 months or so, until Winston Churchill again became Prime Minister. But in 1970 Wilson's majority disappeared.

I am not predicting that the same fate awaits Mr Blair but, rather, pointing out that governments of the left have a tendency not to last as long as people assume they will. The conclusion must be that, if Mr Blair wants to do anything radical, he had better be thinking of a five-year spell rather than of 10 or 15 years of uninterrupted power.

It has become part of the small change of political comment that he has made few specific commitments or offerings to misfortune. I do not wholly agree. Labour's proposals for constitutional change are the boldest, the most radical - some would say the most extreme - of this century. They are largely the consequence of a liberal reaction to the Thatcher majorities of the 1980s. We are promised: the removal of the voting rights of hereditary peers; Scottish and Welsh devolution, preceded by referendums; yet another referendum on voting systems; another one again on the single currency, if the Cabinet and Parliament decide to join (and I cannot see the new House defying a Blair Cabinet); an elected mayor of London; and the incorporation of the Human Rights Convention into our domestic law.

There is enough work for a full five-year Parliament, even for one with an overwhelming government majority. But as the late Max Miller used to say: here's a funny thing. The bigger the majority, the more reluctant is the government to tinker with the system which put it in that happy position. Perhaps Mr Blair will now go on to disprove what had previously been an iron law of British politics. He has, after all, surprised us already in several other respects.

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