Political Commentary: A leaking roof is bond to make a politician tetchy

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The Independent Online
A CURIOUS publication has come into my possession. It is entitled A Social Profile of MPs and their Social, Ethical and Political Views, published by Access Opinions Ltd. In the section 'Languages Spoken by MPs' it says that no Labour MPs at all but two per cent of Conservatives speak Welsh. This implies that six or seven Conservatives speak the language. Yet I know of only two: Mr Rod Richards and Sir Wyn Roberts. Quite possibly there are more. What I do know is that at least seven Labour MPs speak Welsh. This is a rounded-up percentage of three rather than nil.

The section 'Participation in Sports and Leisure Activities' is, if anything, even more perplexing. It tells us that 25 per cent of Conservatives and 40 per cent of Labour MPs have engaged in hill-walking in the past month. This asks us to believe that around 110 representatives of the People's Party have been, not merely walking to the pub on Sunday, but climbing small mountains and trudging over the moors. Pull the other one, comrade]

My object in beginning with these strange statistical assertions is to bring comfort to Mr Paddy Ashdown, and caution to Mr Tony Blair. Mr Blair's unequalled lead of 33.5 per cent over the Conservatives bears little relationship to what people would actually do if they were confronted by a real ballot box in a real election, today or in two years' time. Mr Ashdown's alleged share of 14.5 per cent may, however, be near the Liberal Democrat figure: at the 1992 election it was 18. But it will be surprising if the accession of Mr Blair enables Labour to replace the Liberal Democrats as the principal challengers at by-elections in formerly safe Conservative seats such as Newbury and Eastleigh.

Still, we do not know that for sure. Even before Mr Blair's arrival, Eastleigh had demonstrated that Labour was recovering in the south. This means that my dollop of caution for Mr Blair weighs more than my crumbs of comfort for Mr Ashdown. This is probably realistic. Mr John Major and Mr Kenneth Clarke could still scupper Mr Blair. But has Mr Blair scuppered Mr Ashdown? It is the question of the week.

It all began just over a fortnight ago, when Lord Jenkins paid a handsome tribute to Mr Blair in the Times. He described him as the most exciting Labour leader since Hugh Gaitskell. From Lord Jenkins it was high praise: as if a retired Test cricketer had described a young player as the most exciting English batsman since Denis Compton. I pointed to the remarkable nature of the commendation, coming as it had from the Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords, in this column last week. I also mentioned the great success which former Social Democrats had enjoyed in engineering life peerages for themselves. But at this stage nothing had happened, somewhat surprisingly I thought.

Last week, however, another of the SDP peers, Lord Rodgers - with Lords Jenkins and Owen and Lady Williams, a founder-member of the now defunct party - gave an interview. He said that a Labour government led by Mr Blair would be 'better' than a Conservative government led by Mr Major and that he hoped Mr Blair would win. He also said that many former members of the SDP were now 'fed up' with being in a 'political backwater' and wanted to be 'part of the excitement which the Labour Party will generate'.

Well] Lord Rodgers had not only openly challenged Mr Ashdown's fiction that the Liberal Democrats were separate and equidistant from the two other parties. That would have been reprehensible enough. What was more shocking still was that, with even greater brutality (recalling to us connoisseurs of the Movement stirring times in the early 1960s, when he was Gaitskell's not overscrupulous bodyguard), Lord Rodgers virtually urged old Social Democrats to rejoin Labour.

Lady Williams had not gone as far as this. In a respectable lecture - accordingly hardly noticed at all except by a few - she had merely called on both parties to work towards a 'common programme'. Lord Jenkins, while praising Mr Blair, had urged him to enter into 'friendly relations' with the Liberal Democrats.

The effect of these pronouncements was to produce a crisis for Mr Ashdown. Admittedly it was a small crisis. When all this was going on, he was observing a bigger one. Having tried to set the world to rights in the Balkans, he returned to be asked not about Bosnia but about Blair. No wonder he was tetchy. It was as if we had returned from abroad, with all manner of marvellous tales to tell, only to be informed on our arrival home that the roof was leaking.

The simile may not be unapt. For leaking roofs can collapse. It may be that we are seeing the breaking up of the Alliance which fought the elections of 1983 and 1987 and was transformed (minus Lord Owen and his rump) into the Liberal Democrats who fought in 1992. We shall be left with the old Liberals. As a party they may not do any worse than the existing Liberal Democrats. In February 1974 they polled 19 per cent of the vote under Mr Jeremy Thorpe, who has now been written out of Liberal party history as comprehensively as any opponent of JV Stalin in what was the USSR.

Of the former luminaries of the SDP, Lord Jenkins is growing old gracefully, with other matters with which to occupy himself than the coarse asperities of party politics. By contrast, Lord Rodgers and Lady Williams still, I suspect, hanker after red boxes and black cars. So does Lord Owen. But he, unlike the other two, would never accept them from a Labour government. In the 1980s Mr Alan Clark had a plot, of which surprisingly little appears in the Diaries, to make him leader of the Conservative Party in succession to Lady Thatcher. Nothing came of it. Nothing could now come of it. A peerage precludes the premiership - even though there is, in strict constitutional theory, no reason why the two should not be combined. (Until Lord Home was appointed in 1960 it was widely believed that, in modern times, no peer could be foreign secretary.) Lord Owen's fate is to be a kind of Flying Welshman, restlessly traversing the world in search of crises which unhappily remain forever unresolved.

All in all, what has happened with the old SDP is a striking tribute to the importance of personality in politics. Labour's policies are unchanged from John Smith's day. In any case, in the Labour Party, unlike the Conservative Party, policy is not made by the leader. It is made by the national executive, whose proposals have to be approved by the conference by a two- thirds majority if they are to be incorporated into the party programme. This is a near-mystical compendium of all such resolutions (some of them doubtless contradictory). It is from these that the election manifesto is written.

So much for theory. In practice, as an old drill instructor under whom I briefly suffered used to say: 'Always remember, gentlemen, bullshit baffles brains.' Likewise in politics: a newly burnished face and a clean shirt are worth a whole lorryload of policy.