Political Commentary: As term starts, beware those 'boring' debates

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The Independent Online
TOMORROW real politics restart in the presence of enough BBC correspondents to man a separate Westminster Broadcasting Corporation. During the recess I was talking to an officer of the House, who said they now presented a quite serious problem to him. It was becoming difficult to fit them all into the place. Indeed, for some months before the House broke up I had noticed that, at around six, the press gallery bar would begin to fill up with young people whom I had not seen before and who looked about 19. 'BBC,' my companion would observe sapiently, as if that explained everything, as perhaps it did.

Last session the Corporation let us down badly over the Maastricht Bill. Mr John Birt's mission to explain had somehow become lost in the North Sea. His correspondents had simply not mastered their subject. At the very end of the Bill's passage, one of them was still telling the viewers that the treaty could be ratified under the royal prerogative - a course expressly excluded by a previous Act.

The bemused viewer probably did not care by then, a condition which also affected virtually the entire political class of this country. The Bill was pronounced 'boring', in England an offence equalled only by child-molesting. During its passage, Mr John Major was accused of lacking vim, zip, pep, drive and other allegedly desirable qualities in a Prime Minister.

Though mistakes were certainly made, and Mr Attorney was not perhaps as steady on parade as he might have been, this criticism was misconceived. The House of Commons worked precisely as it was meant to work. It very nearly defeated the Government. This should have been a cause for celebration, even among those who were anxious to secure the treaty's speedy ratification.

Not a bit of it. Where one liberal cause, Europe, conflicts with another liberal cause, an independent House of Commons, Europe wins every time. But it is highly doubtful whether most liberals want an independent House at all, irrespective of the measure which happens to be going through it. They may say they do, but they do not want it really. There seems to be a peculiarly English desire for strong government. This, it is widely held, Mr Major is failing to provide.

But why on earth should anyone have expected him to provide it? No one changes substantially after the age of 17. He is the same inexperienced minister who was nevertheless convincingly elected by the Conservative MPs in 1990. He is the identical Prime Minister who was somewhat less convincingly elected by the voters in 1992. In the interval he had done very little except to abolish the poll tax and to preside over a share of victory in the Gulf War. Lady Thatcher would not have done the one, while she would have been intolerable doing the other. In fact people said at the time: 'Thank God that old cow wasn't taking the salute, otherwise we'd never have heard the end of it.'

Quite apart from his own modest qualities and his quality of modesty, which we all knew about, Mr Major was in no position to provide strong government owing to the size of his majority, 21 after the election, 17 now. In one respect, however, his position has improved. He has arrived at an understanding with the official Ulster Unionists, who have nine Members, giving him a majority of 26.

There are some who claim to find this arrangement very wicked, though 'cynical' is the word more often employed. I cannot for the life of me see why it should be thought of as either. Mr Major believes in the union, though not as strongly as Mr James Molyneaux does. In any case, the politician who cemented the understanding was not Mr Molyneaux or Mr Major but Mr Kevin McNamara, with his proposal derived from a Labour pamphlet for shared sovereignty with Dublin over Northern Ireland. Keep it up, Kevin] That is the Tory plea to Mr McNamara.

It looks as if the session that begins a few weeks after tomorrow (which sees a period of tidying-up from the last session) will be dominated by taxation and finance. This is because we are having the Budget in November. If Mr Norman Lamont is remembered for anything - and who now remembers that walking misprint Derick Heathcoat Amory and Anthony Barber except me and a few others? - it will be for shifting the Budget rather than for leaving the exchange rate mechanism. Have you noticed, by the way, how important changes in our polity are made with little if any public discussion? Votes at 18 were brought in by the 1964 Labour Government after no preliminary debate. The 'Short Money', cash to the parties at Westminster named after the then Leader of the House, was shoved through just before one Easter recess when no one was looking. Even decimalisation was a hole-in-corner affair, providing one reason why Lord Wilson went to the country in 1970 instead of 1971, when it was due to come into effect. As then, so now with the Budget.

The choice between cutting expenditure and raising taxes has now become a doctrinal rather than a practical matter within the Conservative Party. Mr Kenneth Clarke will presumably try to keep in with both sides by piling as much as he can on indirect taxation. Value added tax offers him a luxuriance of choice. It is not generally realised, I think, that all countries in the European Community except Denmark (with a 25 per cent rate) and the United Kingdom (with 17.5) operate a varying rate.

Thus France has a rate of 18.6 per cent on household fuel (except gas and electricity), children's clothing and new houses, 5.5 per cent on food, gas and electricity, books and public transport, and 2.1 per cent on newspapers. Germany has a 14 per cent rate on household fuel (except wood), children's clothing and public transport, and 7 per cent on food, wood, books, newspapers and public transport. Food is exempt from VAT only in Ireland and, partly, Portugal; household fuel, nowhere; children's clothing, nowhere (indeed, it is taxed at the maximum rate everywhere); books, in Ireland and Portugal; newspapers, in Denmark and Portugal; public transport, nowhere; new houses, in Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal.

I do not know whether Mr Clarke appreciates all this. I doubt it. He is a broad-brush merchant rather, and none the worse for that. He should also know that the rules of the sixth VAT Directive of 1977 (as amended) state that, if zero rating is not maintained, it cannot be reintroduced. So far, clearly, we have not taken to VAT. Even Greece, Portugal and Ireland are greater enthusiasts for the tax. Accordingly Mr Clarke has ample scope for extension.

Alas, or happily, any expansionary moves would adversely affect his chances of succeeding Mr Major. The present prediction is what it has always been: that any challenge is for next year. By then Mr Major will have been Prime Minister for longer than Balfour, Campbell-Bannerman, Bonar Law, Chamberlain, Eden, Home, Heath or Callaghan. By November 1994 no one will be able to say that he has not had a fair run. Makes you think.

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