Political Commentary: PM must please or be punished

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ONE OF the exchanges in Prime Minister's Question Time on Thursday was oddly reminiscent of The Isotope Man, a long-forgotten 1950s science fiction novel. An android falls into the hands of an enemy galaxy. Although outwardly a perfect replica of a human, he has one fatal malfunction, which is exposed under interrogation. Instead of answering the question he has just been asked, he consistently answers the question he is just about to be asked.

Thus on Wednesday night John Major made his now famous 'vision' speech, during the course of which he said: 'Our attitude to crime should not change. We must make that clear, in particular, to those youngsters in danger of settling into a life of persistent crime and intermittent punishment.' On Thursday afternoon, Alan Duncan, the young and ultra-loyal MP for Rutland used a valuable question to ask: 'Does my Right Honourable Friend agree with me that . . . teenage criminals and other young offenders are responsible for their own actions and deserve to be punished accordingly . . ?'

This is a new variation on the old planted question routine, the main feature of which is to allow the Prime Minister to make a point he is particularly keen to get over. Using the Duncan technique, the questioner plays doubly safe by asking a question that has already been answered.

It is certainly comforting for Mr Major to have supportive backbenchers such as Mr Duncan in these uncertain parliamentary times. But the exchange also illustrates an interesting point about the Prime Minister's Carlton Club speech. By raising the question of whether people should be asked to work in return for benefits - the most headlined part of the speech - Mr Major has skilfully stimulated a debate already under way on the left as well as the right. But for the most part, what united the policies he enumerated at the Carlton Club, from business deregulation to private finance for road building, from primary school reform to detention of young offenders, was that they add up to a programme he can be reasonably sure his backbenchers will support.

And that is no small matter, as Mr Major has not taken long to discover. He suffers from several constraints as a politician, not least, in stark contrast to his predecessor, a strong desire to be popular. But the most serious is his slender Commons majority; more than anything else it explains why a Tory government appears, for the time being at least, to have returned to the age of the U-turn.

Compared with the 1974 minority Labour government, of course, Mr Major is in luxury. And even by post-war Tory standards it should not be unmanageable. Churchill entered the 1951 Parliament with an overall majority of 17. But the most recent comparison is with Ted Heath's government, which started with a majority of 30 that by 1974 had shrunk to 16. And it is with that Heath administration, during which the political term 'U-turn' appears to have been coined, that Mr Major's is in danger of being compared.

His government has not so far undergone the ideological conversion that Heath experienced in the early Seventies, and that paved the way for him to be challenged by Margaret Thatcher in 1975. But the comparisons are inviting: Mr Heath abandons the 'snake' and floats the pound; Mr Major comes out of the ERM. Mr Heath restores the subsidies to Upper Clyde shipbuilders; Mr Major backs down over the pit closures. Mr Heath comes in on a platform of market economics and privatisation, and manages to sell off only Thomas Cook and the state- owned pubs of Carlisle; Mr Major faces an uphill struggle privatising British Rail. And so on.

The parallel can be overworked. Mr Heath's problems had at least as much to do with still unbridled trade union power; for Mr Major the size of the parliamentary majority is correspondingly more important. It was, and is, pivotal to the issue of the pits; at the very least it played its part in the timing of Malcolm Rifkind's announcement on Wednesday, a week before publication of a hostile defence select committee report, that an extra 5,000 troops would be salvaged from the defence cuts. It is equally a factor in the current hesitation about closing St Bartholomew's hospital in London, not to mention the delay in deciding the future of the naval dockyards.

As with Mr Heath though, the size of the parliamentary majority is still most crucial on the issue of Europe. At issue is the Labour Party's amendment 27, which would delete the protocol to the Maastricht treaty. This is the protocol that, among other things, allows Britain to stay out of the Social Chapter. The amendment will have to be voted on within the next month or so. Tristan Garel- Jones, the Foreign Office minister in charge of seeing the Bill through, argues that if the amendment is passed Britain will be unable to ratify the Maastricht treaty. Thus, he hopes to shame some Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, who would prefer not to sabotage the treaty, into voting against the amendment. Labour, however, retorts that it would be simple to convene an inter-governmental conference and incorporate a new protocol into the treaty. Since the other 11 EC countries have already agreed to the Social Chapter, the new treaty would be re-ratified on the nod. Not so, insists the Government. Any new conference would open a Pandora's box, and other countries, including Denmark, would find all sorts of reasons for unpicking the treaty.

So far, ministers have failed to frighten either Labour pro-Europeans or Liberal Democrats into deserting the opposition amendment. But they have afforded a new causus belli to Tory backbench rebels. If the Government is right and the Labour amendment means the end of the treaty, then is that not reason enough for anti-Maastricht MPs to support it? And if the minor parties, including, as seems probable, the Liberal Democrats, back Labour, then it requires only 11 diehard Tories to get the amendment through.

This, then, is Mr Major's nightmare scenario: the amendment is passed. The Government tries and fails to overturn it in the Lords or at the report stage. Mr Major is then faced with either trying to renegotiate the treaty so that it includes the Social Chapter - with resignations by right-wing Ministers a certainty - or withdrawing the Bill and washing his hands of Maastricht. In chess parlance, Mr Major would be caught in a classic fork. And either course would be the mother of all U-turns.

Ministers hope, of course, that it won't happen. Tory Euro-rebels would certainly find voting for the Social Chapter difficult to justify to their local associations, though casuistical explanations are already being attempted.

There are already mutterings about withdrawing the whip from those who defy the Government. The pressure to toe the party line will be of a ferocity not seen in recent years. Ministers will contemplate offers of, say, a Northern Ireland select committee to buy the support of the Ulster Unionists. And although it will not solve Mr Major's present problem, there is talk among some ministers of 're-educating' the Tory Party to ensure those inclined to rebel on big issues are weeded out in the candidate selection process.

In one respect, if not in others, Mr Heath is an inspiring example for Mr Major, since his great achievement of the 1970 administration was to get British EC membership through. But it is still enough to keep the whips awake at night for several weeks yet.