Mr Major survives the witching hour . . . this time

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"WHO'S in charge of the clattering train?" Lord Beaverbrook, quoting a song of his Canadian past, was fond of asking. Anyone looking at British politics over the last couple of weeks would have been tempted to answer that it was Driver Ken Clarke, a Nottingham footplateman renowned for his risky practices but for arriving at the station on time. Indeed, the way in which political discussion has circled round Mr Clarke is remarkable.

There are two charges against him at Westminster's unofficial court of inquiry. One is that it was he who insisted - with disastrous consequences, as everyone except Mr David Hunt and Mr Richard Ryder now recognises - that the eight abstainers in the European vote should be deprived of the whip. The other charge is that Mr John Major wanted him to postpone the now aborted second stage of VAT on gas and electricity, but that Mr Clarke insisted on continuing on his course.

We shall not know the truth about this until the records are opened, or until the memoirs are published, which may be sooner than we think. About the first charge, however, it is possible to be a little more precise. Five or six ministers at what is described as a "Downing Street supper" on 13 November decided to make the European vote one of confidence.

Mr Clarke was among them. So was Mr Major. But then, so also was Mr Douglas Hurd. And it was he, it appears, who was most insistent that the European vote should be regarded in this drastic fashion. Mr Hurd may even have suggested the ploy in the first place.

This would have been perfectly understandable. For he was scarred by his experiences during the Maastricht debates, when every so often he would have to come down to the House to contradict something that had been said either by the Attorney-General or by his own legal advisers. His life was made a complete misery by some of the finest barrack-room lawyers in the land. "Never again!" said Mr Hurd, to which the others responded: "Hear, hear." And the deed was done.

Even so - even after this initial mistake had been made - removal of the whip from the abstainers need not have followed ineluctably. Mr Ryder's defence is that, given the decision by the group of ministers, he had no choice about the action he took. Butthe Conservative Party had been running more or less successfully, for well over 100 years, without the need to deprive refractory members of the whip. Even during perhaps the most bitter period in the party's 20th century history, 1935-40, the chief whip, the notorious David Margesson, did not find it necessary to resort to such extreme action. The consequences of Mr Ryder's action were predictable. Some of us duly predicted them. How is it that I, who have never voted Conservative in my l ife, know more about the party than the Chief Whip does?

In the VAT vote the European rebels split. Contrary to what government spokesmen have confidently asserted, and some newspapers have obediently reported, they did not act as a cohesive force. Mr Nicholas Budgen actually voted for the Government, no doubtto prove some obscure economic nostrum and incidentally to discourage sentimentality about old age pensioners. Mr Richard Shepherd, Mr Tony Marlow and that walking misprint Mr Michael Carttiss voted against. The rest abstained, as they had in the European vote. The abstainers included Mr Richard Body, who (having voted for the Government in the European division) had deprived himself of the whip.

The original European rebels were, however, supplemented by seven others. Four of them voted against the Government: Mr David Sumberg, Mr Nicholas Winterton, Mrs Ann Winterton and Mr Paul Marland. Three of them abstained: Mr Phil Gallie, Sir Rhodes Boyson and Mr William Powell. Between them, they inflicted the greatest defeat which any government has suffered in modern times.

We should nevertheless remember that defeats on financial measures are not unprecedented and that the government of the day has either reversed or accepted them. Lord Callaghan followed the latter course over some quite drastic amendments on corporation tax to the 1965 Finance Bill. So did Lord Healey when he accepted the proposals for the indexation of allowances advanced by Mr Jeff Rooker, Mrs Audrey Wise and Lord Lawson in 1977. So has Mr Clarke over the - admittedly more serious - defeat of December1994.

I hope advocates of proportional representation realise that, should they attain the House of Commons of their dreams, defeats of this kind are likely to occur about once a week. There will almost certainly be no majority party, while the representation of the smaller parties will be increased. Though I am no enthusiast for PR, I have no objection to governments' being defeated. Most liberal persons are, however, ambivalent, confused even. There is an analogy with nationalism. Nationalism striving is invariably virtuous: whereas nationalism gained is usually wicked. Likewise, MPs should be independent: but at the same time any government which fails to gets its legislation through is being incompetent.

No one expresses this contradiction more eloquently than Mr Tony Blair. The Government, he says, is a shambles, cannot govern properly, ought to get out. Simultaneously what Mr Clarke announced on Thursday was admirable, the result of Labour's combining with the Conservative rebels. It was what people wanted. This is probably right. They were prepared to pay more for beer and cigarettes (though not perhaps for petrol) to protect those on low incomes from the hoist in VAT on gas and electricity which remains at 8 per cent.

The equivalent rates in other Community countries are: Belgium, 17 per cent; Denmark, 25; France, 5.5; Germany, 14; Greece, 4-36; Holland, 18.5; Ireland, 12.5; Italy, 9; Luxembourg, 6; Portugal, 8; Spain, 13; average (excluding Greece), 13. According to the Sixth VAT Directive 1977 (as amended), zero-rating cannot be re-introduced once it has been abolished. So we are stuck with VAT on gas and electricity. Will the voters be grateful to Mr Blair for keeping the rate as it is now? They may t urn out to be just as grateful to Mr Clarke. And is Mr Major grateful to Mr Clarke as well?

Here we return to what are called the high politics of the Conservative Party, though they have always seemed more like low politics to me. No one but Mr Clarke could have pulled off last Thursday's trick. But the witching hour has come and gone. Quite apart from the withdrawal of the whip, and the consequential reduction in the number of members eligible to requisition an election, there was no real chance of a challenge to Mr Major. Another one cannot be mounted until this time next year. If any men in suits appear, the Prime Minister will say: "Sod off, suits." In the song of Lord Beaverbrook's adventurous youth, Death was in charge of the clattering train. We shall have to put up with Mr Major instead, almost certainly for another year, and maybe until 1997.