Please put them out of their misery, Mr Blair

Alan Watkins on politics
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The Independent Online
There Is always, I hope, some exclusive information in this column. So here is the exchange between Mr Tony Blair and Mr John Major last Tuesday.

Blair: Will the Prime Minister say clearly, without any qualification, that his statement of 3 April on behalf of the Government that at the next election he will not rule out the option of joining a single currency in the next Parliament, remains unequivocably the position of the Government?

Major: That remains unequivocally the position of the Government.

B: It is right to give the Prime Minister credit for such a clear reply. Let us see whether we can get another little clear reply. Can he tidy up one small loose end? Does he agree with the Deputy Prime Minister's [Mr Michael Heseltine's] statement on the radio at lunchtime, when he said of that position: "We are not going to change our position in the election campaign or in this Parliament."?

M: My Rt Hon Friend said that; that is our position.

I call this "exclusive" because newspapers no longer tell you what politicians actually said but, rather, what their correspondents thought were the implications of what the politicians really meant. And as the daily Hansard from which this extract is taken now costs a scandalous pounds 5, it is too expensive for most people, even if they can get hold of it.

There were some commentators who wrote afterwards that Mr Blair did not do as well as he might have because he did not succeed in making Mr Major weave a web of embarrassing equivocation. On the contrary: Mr Blair, who had a very good week - I shall be coming to his main inconsistency later on - succeeded beyond his most optimistic hopes. Mr Major was more embarrassed than he would have been if he had equivocated, prevaricated or merely blustered, as he did on Thursday over service pensions. He was forced into making a clear public commitment, which is something no politician likes to do, least of all Mr Major.

Afterwards he looked as if some egg-and-chips at the Happy Eater had gone down the wrong way. The chaps behind him looked as if they had swallowed several bad oysters, and were now waiting for nature to take its distressing course. It duly did, at the meeting of the 1922 Committee on Thursday. It was not just that the backbenchers thought the Government was being run by Mr Kenneth Clarke. It was more that they thought it was not being run by anybody in particular, certainly not by Mr Major.

Chronology, Dr A L Rowse often reminds us, is the essence of history. On Monday the Daily Telegraph reported that the Conservatives would fight the election on a policy of promising that they would not take us into a single currency during the lifetime of the next Parliament. This was said to have been inspired by Mr Major or by someone close to him. In journalism "close to" usually means the person directly involved, rather as "my friend" commonly means "me" when a woman asks for personal advice.

Mr Clarke, in Brussels, made clear that this would be in breach of the April Treaty, whereby he conceded a referendum in exchange for a promise by Mr Major not to rule out a single currency this side of the election (including the campaign). Mr Clarke's work was then done for him on Tuesday by a combination of Mr Heseltine and Mr Blair.

On Wednesday Mr Clarke lunched with two BBC correspondents. There is no reason to doubt their version of what he said: not that he had already threatened to resign - not at all - but that he jolly well would resign if Mr Major broke the treaty (as he had not on the previous day) and that he would take other ministers with him. Consternation all round!

A few weeks ago I asked in this column why Mr Blair was so reluctant to try to bring down the Government. In the succeeding period we have had a further illustration of this disinclination. Or, rather, we have had two illustrations: the dilatoriness in moving the writs for the by- elections in Barnsley East and Wirral South.

According to convention, the writ is moved by the Chief Whip of the party which held the seat. Thus Labour could have called a by-election in Barnsley immediately after the death of the sitting member, Terry Patchett, on 11 October. They could have called it in the first week of the new parliamentary session. The inevitable Labour win in Barnsley - this was before Sir John Gorst's withdrawal of co-operation - would have deprived Mr Major of his majority. The probable Labour win in the Wirral, which Barry Porter, who died on 3 November, had held with a majority of 8,183, would have created a minority government. Naturally the Conservatives did not want it to happen, though there were several voices urging that 'twere well it were done quickly.

The other convention, deriving from a Speaker's Conference of 1973, is that a by-election should be held within three months of the vacancy. Previously the parties, for sordid reasons of their own, had held off for unconscionable periods. Even so, the 1973 convention has been breached at least four times since then.

Both the three-month rule and the moving of the writ by the party which held the seat are matters of convention merely. Any member may move (and occasionally has moved) the writ for a by-election immediately after Prayers. If the motion is opposed, it is taken after Questions.

In Barnsley and the Wirral alike, Labour seems to have been in difficulties over its candidates. They have dropped out, been replaced, landed themselves in trouble of one kind or another. The embarrassments have been greater than any in similar circumstances in the past. Indeed, the more one looks at it, the more closely does New Labour resemble a delicious-looking piece of meat covered with a shiny sauce with truffles on top which, when one cuts into it, turns out to be full of maggots. A new code of discipline? Come off it, Donald Dewar. What the party clearly needs is a few halfway respectable by-election candidates.

These difficulties apart, there is no reason why before now we should not have had another Labour member for Barnsley East and a government without a majority. Over the Wirral by-election, Mr Blair could simply have disregarded convention and asked either Mr Dewar or - if he was reluctant to break the rules of the Whips' Club - a compliant backbencher to move the writ. There would have been (there could still be) a vote. The Government might be defeated. It would certainly receive much bad publicity. For why should it want to avoid a by-election in the Wirral?

Mr Blair may say that he does not want to breach convention by moving the writ when the seat was held by the other party. But these are unusual times. Mr Blair says so himself. We have a demoralised and inept government which is hanging on for no other reason than that it hopes something will turn up before May 1997. It is surely Mr Blair's duty, not only to his party but to his country, to bring the whole miserable performance to a speedy end.