Mr Major is a slippery fish but can he get away with it?

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FISH have always seemed to me to play a disproportionate part in our political life. Open any old volume of Hansard at random and you will find a minister laying down the law on the White Fish Authority. More recently there has been the dispute with Iceland in the mid-1970s, the Cod War.

At that time Mr James Fenton was about to succeed me as political columnist of the New Statesman, then in rather better shape than today. I took him to Annie's Bar in the House to meet some of my chums. One of them was the late Spencer Le Marchant, the member for High Peak and the last of the two-bottle squires. We remarked on his tanned and fit appearance. He said he had just returned from a big-game fishing holiday in the Caribbean. I asked - I confess out of perversity, to annoy him - whether he ate the fish so caught.

"Of course not,'' Le Marchant replied, showing unwonted irritation. "You throw them back.''

At this point Mr Fenton perked up.

"It seems to me," he said (I quote from memory), "that, quite by chance, you have hit upon the solution to the Cod War.''

If both sides, Mr Fenton continued, could be persuaded to throw their catches into the ocean, the cause of the conflict would be removed, while at the same time employment in the fishing industry would be maintained. Le Marchant pondered this for some seconds, as if he had been presented with a startlingly original thought.

"No,'' he said, "wouldn't work,'' I'm afraid. You see, people don't want to eat the kind of fish I've been catching, but they do want to eat cod.''

Anthony Crosland, who was Foreign Secretary at the time, had a different solution. The mischief, he thought, derived from the refusal of the voters to eat anything but cod, haddock or plaice with their chips. These fish were in increasingly short supply. There was, however, an abundance of mackerel. If only the citizenry could be persuaded to eat mackerel and chips, the conflict would be at an end.

So it goes on. Spain has replaced Iceland as the enemy. The villains are the Spanish fishermen. They have even been to the House of Lords in a judicial capacity, and won their case before that tribunal. Indeed, in the case in question, Factortame v Secretary for Transport in 1990, the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 was overruled in favour of European Community law.

Last week the Community's powers over fishing were the cause of a defeat for the Government. The abstainers were chiefly the usual suspects. The two who voted against were that walking misprint, Mr Michael Carttiss, and Mr William Cash, who had played no significant part in the rebellions of the last session.

Some people have written that this defeat showed that Mr John Major's midsummer gamble had failed to come off. Not a bit of it. The European irreconcilables were never going to come into the fold. The gamble succeeded in its object: to avoid a contest in November and to ensure the continuation of Mr Major's leadership until the election. However, rumours still persist about his stepping down, despite the increasingly sceptical press which Mr Michael Heseltine is receiving as a king without a castle or a general without an army.

These exciting predictions will almost certainly remain unfulfilled. Mr Major is safe because, after last July's result, his supporters rushed to the microphones to claim a spectacular victory, as if they had been training to run sprints with Mr Will Carling. In fact Mr Major had won the support of 66 per cent of Conservative MPs, which does not seem very overwhelming to me.

What the defeat did show was that, as I had written many times over several months, Mr Major could not guarantee an election-free 1996 or any election on a day of his choice. As the Service for the Burial of the Dead puts it: "In the midst of life we are in death.'' Yes indeed. There is really nothing much more to be said until the next Tory keels over.

There is, however, a good deal to be said about something which has so far largely escaped notice. I mean Mr Major's triumph over the Europhobes. Triumph? I hear you say. In a week which has seen him defeated - nay, in the usage of our great popular newspapers, humiliated - by those very same people? What kind of wild talk is this? And yet so it is. For the Prime Minister came back from Madrid carrying with him two significant modifications to government policy on Europe.

He said it was no longer necessary, as the Maastricht Treaty seemed to require, for an applicant country to have been a member of the exchange- rate mechanism for two years before adopting the desperately named Euro. In 1992 we left - were forced out of - the ERM. We show no sign of rejoining it, much to the glee of the Europhobes.

No matter, says Mr Major. The ERM has changed drastically, its bands widened, since the treaty was signed four years ago. So much, indeed, has it changed that it is no longer the creature which was within the contemplation of the high contracting parties. That is Mr Major's story. I am not sure I believe it, in the sense of believing it to be a correct interpretation of the treaty. But Mr Major clearly thinks he can get away with it, and join the single currency without a probationary couple of years in the ERM: in which case, good luck to him.

Mr Major went on to promise that he would almost certainly hold a referendum on our participation in such a currency. He would (even if he did not put it in precisely this way) repeat Harold Wilson's device of 1975. The referendum would take place only if the government had first decided to join, and was putting a recommendation to this effect to the people. There would nevertheless be one important difference between Wilson's wheeze and his own. Wilson had given a licence to differ and allowed members of the Cabinet such as Mr Tony Benn, Lady Castle, Mr Michael Foot and Mr Peter Shore to voice their opposition to Britain in Europe. Mr Major would allow no such latitude.

In 1975 the forces of conformity to the government's wishes won easily, despite the preponderance of oratorical talent on the other side, who could boast Mr Enoch Powell in addition to the Labour politicians just listed. Yet that side appeared to be composed of extremists, cranks even. They certainly had much less money at their disposal.

Their successors, assisted by Sir James Goldsmith, may have more cash. But they are even more unappealing. Who can forget Mr Tony Marlow in his Old Wellingtonian striped blazer and the damage that did to Mr John Redwood's cause? By his nature Mr Major, unlike Lady Thatcher before him or even Wilson, will never be a mass-audience sport. But in 1996 it will be necessary, both for his enemies inside his party and for his opponents outside, at least to master the rules.

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