Perhaps there'll be fireworks on 7 November this year

Political Commentary
Click to follow
One of the most interesting pieces of news of recent weeks was that Mr John Major had instructed his departmental ministers to complete their legislative programmes by the beginning of the summer recess. It would mean that there would be no overspill or tidying-up session immediately after Parliament reassembled in the autumn. This is what generally happens. The leaves are off the trees, there is a nip in the air and the lamps are lighted early before the new parliamentary session is properly under way. This year Mr Major wants more freedom - or more space, as women have been taught to say these days when they are thinking of leaving their consorts.

The Conservative Party conference is due to end on 11 October. Dr Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, has put forward the final session, and hence the leader's speech, to the Friday morning. It does not require much imagination either to picture the scene or to anticipate the Prime Minister's script: "Hard slog ... worth it in the end ... triumph in Europe ... all men of goodwill ... on the other hand, Mr Tony Blur ... ha, ha, Blair, sorry ... distrusted ... never know where you are with him ... don't want to be rude, but slippery customer ... vote for me on Thursday 7 November." Or something roughly along these lines, anyway.

In this century a general election has been held six times in October; three times in May, June and December; twice in January, February and November; once in March, April, July and September; and never in August. The end of the year has, however, fallen out of fashion. Elections took place in November in 1922 and 1935, and in December in 1910, 1918 and 1923.

On the last occasion, the new and inexperienced Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, went to the country on the issue of tariff reform. He did this ostensibly to give the people a choice, but in reality to ditch the footloose David Lloyd George, who was, as he thought, planning to return to power with a protectionist scheme of his own. The Conservatives emerged as the largest party, but they did not have an overall majority. Labour were second. Baldwin, supported by King George V, put in Ramsay MacDonald's first, short-lived Labour government, to the horror and indignation of most of his leading colleagues. But he managed to survive both losing the election and putting in MacDonald. He went on to head two more governments, in 1924 and 1935.

When Baldwin called this election, he had been prime minister for six months. If Mr Major has one in November or December, he will have been at No 10 for six years. There is, as far as I can see, no administrative or legal reason why there should not be an election still at this time of year. Nothing has changed much. In one respect, indeed, there has been a change that restores to these months the attraction possessed in recent times by April, May and June: that is, a Budget presented a month or so in advance. Mr Norman Lamont - perhaps it will prove to be his one footnote in the history books - shifted the Budget from spring to late autumn.

But we should remember also that a chancellor can have a Budget at any time he likes. There is no law about it. Indeed, Lord Healey used to have them all the time. "A Budget a day keeps the doctor away": that seemed to be Denis's prescription for a healthy life. His even more distinguished predecessor, RA Butler, went in for the same kind of thing, even if on a diminished scale. "Ken Clarke's emergency July Budget": there is a fine, ringing headline for you. And what emergency would that be, then? Why, to get the Conservative Party re-elected, of course.

But Mr Clarke has set himself against such a scheme. It is not so much that he has any profound moral objection to bribing the voters as that, rather - or so he claims - the voters are too intelligent to be bribed. Or perhaps they have long made up their minds about which way they are going to vote. There may be a parallel here between 1970, when Harold Wilson had lost the public's confidence because of the 1967 devaluation, and 1996, when John Major has suffered similarly because of the 1992 devaluation.

In 1970 the Labour chancellor was Lord Jenkins. He too refused to bribe the voters. But a myth has grown up, fostered largely by Lady Castle and the late RHS Crossman, that foolishly or courageously (depending on your point of view) he stood up to the majority in cabinet and party who wanted to chuck some extra cash around. Lord Jenkins certainly makes no such vainglorious claim on his own behalf. He writes in his memoirs:

"As I thought might be the case, the Cabinet were all over the place, which made it easier for me to make my own decisions. Only Barbara Castle advocated a sweeping giveaway Budget, although it has subsequently become clear from the Crossman Diaries, which also indicated the excitable pre- election atmosphere of the time, that he too wanted this."

Later, however, Lord Jenkins said to his aide, Lord Harris, that there "did not seem to be much force in the Tory attack". "No," Lord Harris replied with unaccustomed astringency, "there does not need to be because they are not frightened of the Budget." But Lord Jenkins has no regrets and does not believe the 1970 election would have turned out any differently whatever he had done. Mr Clarke is certainly under greater pressure from his own party today than Lord Jenkins was from his then.

The other factor is football. It is often said that Wilson exploited England's victory in the World Cup of 1966 to help him win the general election of that year. Alas for this theory, the election was in March and the World Cup in June. At election meetings in June 1970, however, Wilson kept exhorting his audiences to think of "the lads" in Mexico, where the competition was then taking place. But though he was perfectly prepared to exploit England's presence there for political purposes, the only part which the 1970 World Cup played in election calculations was that originally June was considered to be excluded on account of it. Subsequently this objection was disregarded. Mr Tony Benn recorded in his diary on 7 June 1970: "Today, Brazil beat England in the World Cup: the political effect of this can't be altogether ignored." And on 14 June: "Tonight England were finally knocked out of the World Cup which, no doubt, will have another subtle effect on the public."

But football, Budgets and even European conferences will have less effect on Mr Major's decision than the state of his majority. Even if it remains at one, which is unlikely, I cannot see the Government surviving another whole winter, even one of unsurpassed mildness. There is no good reason for the Official Unionists to prolong its life. The Whips' sole ambition is now - as it always is at this time of year - to get through the steamy jungle of July to reach the quiet frontier town of the summer recess. Then Mr Major can contemplate his prospects.