Political Commentary: Brimstone and treacle for the battle-weary troops

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The Independent Online
A FEW weeks ago Mrs Teresa Gorman accused Mr Michael Heseltine of disloyalty to the Prime Minister. She expressed her meaning by saying that Mr Heseltine was 'putting his puddings out for treacle'. I thought at the time that this must mean something incredibly filthy, but refrained from saying so, for fear of causing offence (which it has always been my purpose to avoid, as much to Mrs Gorman as to anyone). Instead I restricted myself to a reference to Finnegans Wake. Mrs Gorman now writes to inform me that 'the expression was used in our neighbourhood about any woman considered to be putting herself forward for attention - or suspected of paying the tradesmen's bills in 'kind']'

Mrs Gorman has put us all in her debt, and deserves to secure a place in some dictionary or other of phrase-and-fable. Though it would be going too far to claim that Mr Heseltine is distributing his favours to pay his bills, he is certainly putting himself forward. Mrs Gorman is right about that. On the day after John Smith's death he was scarcely off the airwaves, assuring us and his fellow-Conservatives not only that he was as fit as a flea but that his continuing good health depended on his remaining in active politics.

Any abatement of ambition, any lessening of stress, any diminution of activity would (he managed to suggest) unfailingly bring about another heart attack. There used to be a character called Mona Lott in the programme of the 1940s, ITMA, whose catchphrase was: 'It's being so cheerful as keeps me going.' 'It's being so ambitious as keeps me going' - that is Mr Heseltine's health tip.

To forestall critics such as Mrs Gorman, Mr Heseltine has (in the language of our time) moved to the right. So also has Mr John Major, for the same reason. The Conservative campaign of the past few weeks has not been conducted for the benefit of the voters. It has, rather, been played out to impress Mr Major's critics inside the Conservative Party. Grasp that, and you grasp all.

The enemies of yesteryear, the awkward squad of the Maastricht Bill, the 'bastards' on the backbenches - Mr William Cash, Mrs Gorman herself, Sir Teddy Taylor - now form Mr Major's Pretorian Guard. They do not admire the emperor particularly (though Mr John Biffen quite likes him personally, and for that reason alone would be reluctant to stand against him). But they prefer him to any new emperor who may succeed: both to Heseltinus, who tries to exercise some authority over the fastnesses of the Board of Trade, and to Clarkian, whose efforts to control the officials of the Imperial Treasury are equally demanding.

Mr Kenneth Clarke likewise has moved to the right over Europe. But really this is a misleading way to talk. The idea has come about, encouraged by Labour and helped on its way by the Conservatives, that Europe today is a land overflowing with free beer for the workers, offering charabanc rides to the seaside for all.

Recent rulings have tended to confirm this: such as the European Court's decision last week that the Government was in breach of its duty to consult workers when a business was transferred from public to other hands. Owing to the problem of causation, it is unlikely - though I may be wrong - that this ruling will lead to a public payout on the scale of the one to pregnant servicewomen. Nevertheless, it is always agreeable to see a Conservative (or any) government slip on a banana skin.

These and similar interventions in our national life have nothing to do with the social chapter. The European Community is not trying to pull a fast one. Such injunctions or prohibitions were implicit in our accession to the Community and in the European Communities Act 1972, which established the supremacy of Community over United Kingdom law. Some of us pointed this out at the time but were told that our objections were theoretical, legalistic. 'Lord, we didna ken,' cry Conservatives, accompanied by those newspapers, such as the Times and the Daily Mail, which supported our entry into Europe with all the powers of persuasion at their command. Well, they ken noo.

These interferences are unconnected with the Maastricht Treaty. Some of them, indeed, have precious little to do with Europe at all. They are more the consequence of over-zealous interpretation of Brussels directives by civil servants, whose instructions are then enforced by crazed environmental health officers and the like.

What the treaty does is to place national economic policy in the hands of bankers. The bankers whom it has in mind are not the profligate British fly-by-nights of the 1980s - all red braces, corporate hospitality, rash loans to third-world governments and country-house hotels - but solid citizens, preferably German, with Homburg hats, large cigars and astrakhan collars to their overcoats. That is what proper bankers used to be like, what they are still like (in spirit, at any rate) on the continent of Europe. Indeed, I am told that they are shocked by the gambling, the short-termism, the sheer financial frivolity which they witness daily in the City of London.

The treaty is, in its provisions for economic convergence, highly orthodox, unashamedly deflationary. It prefers unemployment to inflation. The social chapter is window-dressing. The only politician who has both seen and expressed this clearly is Mr Denzil Davies, who has just announced his candidature for the Labour leadership, if he can find enough sponsors. As Mr Davies is much cleverer and a rather better speaker than any of the other candidates, he will clearly get nowhere.

He also belongs to a different age in politics, even though he is only 55. He does not deal in the soundbite. This is a phrase whose meaning Lady Thatcher did not know when Sir Charles Powell used it ('There were a few good soundbites in that interview, Prime Minister') during one of her trips to America. 'Oh for heaven's sake speak English, Charles,' she said, or words to this effect. I did not know what it meant myself until it was explained to me by, oddly enough, the editor of the Sunday Telegraph a few years ago.

Mr Tony Blair is adept with the striking but simple phrase that can be fitted into often no more than 10 seconds of valuable television time. So is Mr Paddy Ashdown. Mr Major is perhaps less so. Still, Mr Clarke said on the Today programme that the Prime Minister had fought a good campaign. Exactly the same was said (though neither Mr Clarke nor his interlocutor pointed it out) of Mr Neil Kinnock not only in 1992 but, more emphatically, in 1987.

Tomorrow Mr Major is likely to face a worse result in Europe than Mr Kinnock did in either of those national contests, worse even than in Eastleigh. My feeling is that he will nevertheless carry on till the election. His doctrine of the 1992 'mandate' is, as we know, unsound. If it were correct the Conservatives would prohibit, as they do not, any challenge to a prime minister. But Mr Major believes he has a mandate. That is enough. He also has courage, and he will be hard to shift.

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