Labour shouldn't bank on another term

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ONE OF the consequences of the comings and goings of the last couple of weeks - more goings than comings - is that suddenly the Government appears mortal, subject to the usual laws of political life and death. Some commentators have already written that the Government looks vulnerable. This is perhaps not the right word. A few adverse by-elections are not going to affect Mr Tony Blair's majority in any significant way. He is more like Lady Thatcher, a comparison he himself seems to relish, than Mr John Major or Lord Callaghan.

Subject to the Human Rights Act, our various European obligations and the views of Mr George Soros, he can do more or less as he likes. As Walter Bagehot wrote, there is no arguing with the brute force of a parliamentary majority. If he had got up to what Mr Bill Clinton has, far from being tried by the Lords at the suit of the Commons (our old version of impeachment), he would find himself tucked up snug under the blanket of collective responsibility and the eiderdown of a vote of confidence, all the Labour ladies pirouetting through the lobbies on his behalf even more enthusiastically than they did in support of bombing Iraq.

On this I disagree with the view expressed in this paper last week by my friend Geoffrey Wheatcroft. Quite apart from the size of Mr Blair's majority, no Labour prime minister in office (there were only four before him) has ever been removed by his colleagues. Ramsay MacDonald deserted them to head an ostensibly national government in 1931. He acted as he did more from the unconstitutional pressure exerted on him by George V than from any treachery on his own part - the latter still the accepted version of history in the People's Party. Harold Wilson resigned in 1976 in circumstances which are still thought by some to be mysterious but were in fact quite straightforward. He had planned his resignation for a long time and, but for unforeseen events, intended to go slightly sooner than he did.

Mr Blair is unlikely to do a MacDonald, or a Wilson for that matter. But he may nevertheless meet the same fate as C R Attlee in 1951, Harold Wilson in 1970 or James Callaghan in 1979. He may still be rejected by the voters. I do not want to boast; though, as Lord Beaverbrook used to say, if you do not blow your own trumpet no one else is going to blow it for you. But I was, I think, the first to point out what may be called The Fallacy of the Second Term or: It May Never Happen.

I did so more on historical grounds than because of any expectation of failure by Mr Blair's government. The Liberal majority which Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman had secured in 1906 and H H Asquith inherited in 1908 was to disappear in 1910, even though the Liberals were to remain in power until 1915 and Asquith, briefly as prime minister of a coalition government, until 1916. True, Attlee won a second term in 1950 by a majority of five. In those days, before Labour in 1964-66 and for most of the 1970s, and before the Conservatives in the mid-1990s, this was considered too small for effective government. Eminent persons talked as if we had a constitutional crisis on our hands. This talk, together with the death or illness of several senior colleagues, led Attlee to call an unnecessary election in 1951 which he duly lost.

Wilson also won second terms in 1966 and in October 1974. But on both occasions he was building on a small or non-existent majority. No period of Labour government has lasted for more than six years. It was this which Mr Blair was and remains determined to change.

His ambition distorts current politics not only because of the history of the century but also because of the peculiar nature of the 1997 election. Certainly a win is a win, a result a result, a majority a majority. But there was something very odd about the contest all the same, and not merely because Labour could obtain a majority of 179 when only 31 per cent of the electorate had voted for the party. It was odd because it was a kind of by-election on a national scale: the voters were determined to turn the Conservatives out, to punish them. To this end they voted both Labour and Liberal Democrat, using tactical voting nationally for the first time.

Does Mr Blair think he is going to hang on to the new Labour voters by keeping taxes as low as he can and by making noises which he hopes will prove agreeable to the Sun and the Daily Mail? If he does, I think he is deluding himself. These people came in anger, and they can perfectly well go away again in sorrow. They can depart in anger too: about the health service, unemployment, education, all those "real" issues which Mr Blair promised to resolve once he was prime minister. They can also go because of the fug of humbug which, after the the departure of Mr Peter Mandelson and others, now clings to the Government.

Oddly enough, I do not think the adventures of Mr Robin Cook contribute to this atmosphere, even if, contrary to Mr Blair's view, he is hardly the most impressive occupant of his office in modern times. It was Mr Alastair Campbell who was responsible for causing the mess in the first place. Mr Campbell presented Mr Cook with an ultimatum at the very moment when he was about to embark on a holiday with the then Mrs Cook: he could either stay with his wife or make an honest woman of his mistress.

Mr Campbell followed this impudent course not so much to forestall as to draw the sting, or so he erroneously supposed, of a story that was about to appear in the News of the World. In fact he gave the story what we in the trade call "legs", which have grown progressively longer. In Mr Cook's place I should have told Mr Campbell to mind his own business and do something useful with his time, such as sort out the stationery cupboard at No 10.

The precise details of all scandals are forgotten in six months, except by the politically obsessed: but a general impression remains. If Mr Blair loses 90 seats, his control of the Commons disappears, though his may still be the largest party. Looked at in this way, such an outcome in 2001 or 2002 is by no means out of the question, though it would clearly help if the Conservatives had someone other than Mr William Hague as their leader. Is Mr Blair confident of being able to hang on to, say, Ribble South, Scarborough, Portsmouth North, Broxtowe and Edgbaston, to name but a few?

In these uncertain circumstances one would expect the cause of electoral reform to be gaining support on the Labour benches. An electorate that wanted to punish Mr Major may want to do likewise to Mr Blair. This is Labour's opportunity not so much to cement itself in office, for that would be both impossible and immoral, as to render its removal more difficult.

But not a bit of it. Though Mr Blair has unexpectedly snubbed his backbenchers by treating Mr Paddy Ashdown as a long-lost nephew, the departure of Mr Mandelson seems to have led to the placing of electoral reform at the back of the fridge, next to the mouldy tomato and the bits of old cheese that are too hard to do anything with except grate. Mr Blair may live to regret it. Lord Jenkins did a lot of work on voting systems, freely giving of his time. He almost succeeded in making electoral reform an amusing subject. He is already justified in being rather cross with Mr Blair.

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