LEADING ARTICLE : Something fishy at Westminster

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You can bet fish are not high up the Downing Street Christmas menu this year. John Major won't want to be reminded of his embarrassing defeat in the House of Commons over European fishing rules. And such an irritating vote to lose - no direct consequences for fish, fishermen or fish-eaters, and no great principles invoked in the debate. Yet thanks to Labour's opportunism and the determination of the Euro-sceptics, the fragility of Mr Major's majority was forced into public view once more.

But fish are not the precursor of an early election. Although Conservative numbers in the Commons are gradually being whittled down by death and defection, Mr Major still maintains an outright majority of three (five if you include Sir Richard Body, the Euro-sceptic who doesn't take the Conservative whip). All of these will return to the fold if a vote of confidence is called. In the Seventies, James Callaghan lasted for years without an actual majority at all. Never underestimate the resilience and wiliness of a group of politicians determined to keep hold of power.

The fish vote has more significance for the nature of government in 1996 than it does for the timing of the general election. Gradually politicians, press and public alike are adjusting to a Westminster where the balance of power is fragile. The Eighties world of huge majorities allowed the Tory governments of that period to push through legislation without fear of defeat and little need for debate. Small majorities, on the other hand, may increase the power of Parliament. In extremis, governments can be obliged to negotiate openly in order to build a consensus between different groups, thereby exposing policy proposals to a far greater degree of public debate than the current adversarial party system normally requires.

The trouble is that the House of Commons under Mr Major is a far cry from such involuntary consensus government. Instead of moderating policies to collect extra votes in the centre, Mr Major has to play to the far right. Whether it be Euro-sceptics and fish, or conservative moralists and divorce, it is the Conservative right wing which is accruing undue influence.

Thanks to the adversarial party system, there is little chance of the Government being shored up by extra votes from the centre. The Labour Party finally has power in its sights and, with the notable exception of Northern Ireland, is primarily motivated by the desire to make life as hard as possible for the Government. Even the Liberal Democrats, a source of extra votes in the past, have decided it is better to hasten the arrival of a fresh new government than to keep the Conservatives staggering on.

The process of political negotiation is equally disappointing. Instead of open debate over policies in advance, we see sudden swings in direction and blatant last-minute bribes. In Tuesday's debate, the Government suddenly produced pounds 4m in grants to fishing ports in an attempt to win those last few votes.

This is all rather depressing. An ominous pattern is being set for the politics of 1996: a faltering government pandering to its own rebels, a frequent chopping and changing in policy direction, and an Opposition driven only by the scent of power in its nostrils. At least a general election is no more than 15 months away.