Political Commentary : Bankruptcy and death could soon do for Mr Major Carry on Mr Major, but a bleak winter lies ahead

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George Formby used to have a number entitled "Things Might Have Been a Great Deal Worse". Part of the chorus went "Things are never as bad as they seem" - a sentiment often found in the popular songs of a more optimistic age. This is the way the Conservatives have chosen to present the local election results. They could hardly do anything else. Judged by share of total votes cast, they (together with the Liberal Democrats) have done slightly better, and Labour slightly worse, than in 1995.

We can do all kinds of calculations using different criteria over various periods. Let us leave that to Dr Brian Mawhinney's young gentlemen at Central Office. Their predecessors certainly did numerous elaborate sums before the elections of 1983 and 1987 under the supervision of, respectively, Lord Parkinson and Lord Tebbit. Their conclusions were then presented to the committee of workers, peasants and intellectuals who were considering the precise date on which the election should be called.

The Parliament Act 1911 says that a Parliament, if not previously dissolved, ceases to exist five years from the day when it was first appointed to meet by writ of summons. The Representation of the People Act 1918 says that the interval between the dissolution of one Parliament and the meeting of the next must be no less than 20 days, though this can be extended by proclamation. Within this period the general election is held.

Thus in 1992 Mr John Major could have chosen to go on into July, because the previous election had been held in June 1987. Instead he went in April. Today we are told that, by contrast, he will go the full distance and that accordingly the election will be held in May of next year.

I may be proved wrong, but I cannot see it myself. The Government's majority is already down to one. He may be able to get through June and July with no more trouble than a sticky, Pimms-inflamed Westminster summer customarily brings in its train. But I cannot see the Government surviving even a mild winter. It is not only the fell sergeant, Death, who will be going about his duties. The Bankruptcy Court may also take a hand. Several Conservative backbenchers are in what used to be called Queer Street. They are temporarily embarrassed. At least one has been kept away from the clutches of the Official Receiver - hence away from the automatic expulsion from the House which follows bankruptcy - by an exercise in toleration by the banks, organised through Central Office and the Whips. The less worthy the cause, from defalcating Tory MPs through assorted banana republic despots to the Duchess of York, the more ready are our great joint-stock banks to extend the credit.

If Mr Major were absolutely sure he could go on into 1997, he would not have issued instructions that the legislative decks were to be scrubbed down by the end of the summer. If his orders are followed, as they will be unless some great parliamentary disaster supervenes in the next few months, there will be no need for the tidying-up period which customarily occurs between the end of the Conservative conference and the Gracious Speech. There may be an election in the autumn. This year the conference ends on 11 October, with Dr Mawhinney having advanced the leader's speech from the Friday afternoon to the morning. (I am old enough to remember the time when the leader did not deign to attend the conference at all, but merely turned up at lunchtime on Saturday to deliver a speech in the afternoon.)

Mr Major's gift is for doing the unexpected. Hardly anyone expected him to take any interest in Ireland, even if the evidence is that it came about more by accident than through deliberation. No one at all thought he would resubmit himself for election last summer, when his failure to secure the support of a third of his parliamentary colleagues was duly hailed as a famous victory. But it worked. And in February this year the Executive of the 1922 Committee did what Mr Major had suggested: they suspended until the general election the Conservatives' own procedures for choosing a leader. Mr Major is there for the duration, as people used to say in the war.

There has been a disposition among some of my colleagues to depreciate both the re-election of Mr Major in 1995 and also the consequential amendment to the rules. What has been done, they say, can quite as easily be undone. The rules are made for man, so to speak, not man for the rules. Just so. But the real reasons for this pooh-poohing are, I suspect, that rules are boring, have to be looked up and get in the way of a good though by now aged story - that Mr Major is about to be replaced by Mr Michael Heseltine.

Most of the hostility towards Mr Major has come from the Europhobe wing of the party. Why should they accept the accession of Mr Heseltine? His form as Europhile is not quite as long as Mr Kenneth Clarke's but is getting on that way. A possible answer is that desperate men will, if necessary, take desperate measures. If they conclude that their seats can be saved by someone who is doctrinally unsound, then doctrine must take second place to the practicalities of life. That is certainly one way of looking at things. But I do not think it accurately reflects what is happening now. Mr Major will carry on, with Mr Heseltine by his side, and they will decide the date of the general election between them, Dr Mawhinney putting in his two penn'orth as well.

For it is incorrect to believe that the date of the general election is, either constitutionally or in practice, within the sole discretion of the Prime Minister. It is equally wrong to think that the date of the election is never discussed in Cabinet. These errors have come about because of a confusion between the channel for giving the advice on dissolution to the Queen and the processes whereby that decision is arrived at. They have come about too because of a tendency to parrot what textbooks assert and to neglect to examine what actually happens.

The channel of communication is the Prime Minister, though the Cabinet could still, arguably, dissuade the Palace from accepting advice with which it disagreed. This might have happened when the Whips threatened an election over the Maastricht Bill in 1993. But the means by which the Prime Minister's advice is agreed can involve all kinds of people, from trusted ministers through advertising agents and fly-by-night advisers to the Cabinet collectively. Sometimes, as in 1966, the Cabinet has a lengthy discussion. On other occasions, as in 1970, it is presented by the Prime Minister with a date it is asked to endorse. Harold Wilson adopted both methods; Margaret Thatcher preferred the latter. But she held several meetings first, usually at Chequers. Mr Major will be doing likewise. My guess is that his thoughts are already turning to the end of the year.

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