Precarious balance of power before the showdown

Alan Watkins on politics
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The Independent Online
Mr Tony Blair is an amateur of religious philosophy with, we are told, a particular interest in ethics. He will therefore know that ethical problems are specially prone to arise when two principles conflict, or appear to conflict. The Wirral South by-election is a case in point. On the one hand, we have the convention that the by-election is called - the writ is moved - by the party which held the seat. But, on the other hand, we have the more recently established convention that no more than three months should elapse between the occurrence of the vacancy and its filling.

The sitting member, Barry Porter (whose memorial service was held at St Margaret's, Westminster, last Thursday), died on 3 November. According to my arithmetic, his constituency should have a new member before 4 February 1997. That falls on a Tuesday. By-elections commonly take place on a Thursday. The last Thursday before the Tuesday in question is 30 January. A clear 21 days for the campaign takes us back to the 8th. Parliament reassembles on the 6th. Accordingly, to satisfy the convention, the writ must be moved by 7 January at the latest.

On the BBC Today programme last Friday, Dr Brian Mawhinney promised that he would turn his attention to this matter in the New Year. If Mr Blair does not receive a clear promise from Dr Mawhinney or someone more senior that the writ will be moved by the Government as soon as the House reassembles, he should say that he intends to move it himself.

He need not do the job in person. Mr Donald Dewar, the Shadow Chief Whip, could do it equally well. If Mr Blair wanted to farm out the task to the back benches, Mr Dale Campbell-Savours or someone of that kind would almost certainly be delighted to perform it instead. If the Government objected, there would be a vote. The Government might win, or it might lose. If it won, it would still not look very beautiful or smell very nice. If it lost, Mr John Major would almost certainly have to call for a vote of confidence. And who knows what might happen then?

There are three reasons why Mr Blair should take the course which is being suggested here. The first is fairness to the electors of the Wirral. Three months is a long enough time for a constituency to be deprived of its member. It is also quite long enough for the political parties to make their dispositions over their choice of candidate. It was proposed by a Speaker's Conference in 1973. Though the convention has been breached four times since then, the period seems fair to all parties concerned.

The second and third reasons are nakedly and unashamedly political: they are none the worse for that. The second reason is that a defeat on the timing of the Wirral by-election might either bring down the Government directly or be the spark which led to the final explosion. And the third reason is that a defeat in the Wirral would turn the Government into a minority administration. This would make its parliamentary defeat easier to bring about. It would also have a psychological consequence. Ministers would feel even more insecure than they do now because they were members of a minority government.

You may well have thought that, as a result of Labour's win in the Barnsley East by-election, they were in that position already. You could certainly have been forgiven for thinking it, if you had relied on our great newspapers on Friday morning. But many of my colleagues are, alas, no good at sums, as some of them have demonstrated by writing incorrectly that the Wirral contest must be held by the end of February rather than of January.

The calculation that the Conservatives are today in a minority depends on the assumption that Sir John Gorst is no longer a Conservative and that accordingly their strength is reduced from 323 to 322. This is a highly optimistic assumption to make. People became over-excited by his press conference a week last Friday.

Sir John has neither resigned nor been deprived of the Whip. He is still a member of his party, even if the courts have ruled that, unlike the Labour Party, the Conservative Party does not have members nationally. He has certainly not been disowned by his constituency, Hendon North; nor has he detached himself from it. All he is done is withdraw his support from the Conservatives in Parliament, and proclaim - though that is probably too strong a word for the hesitant manner of his announcement - that they should not assume his automatic support in any vote of confidence. On balance Sir John must be restored to the 323 Conservative MPs.

There are 651 members in all (and there will be 659 after the election). Four of them, Madam Speaker and her three industrious deputies, are above the battle. This leaves 647. The opposition parties have 323, the same as the Conservatives. A victory for Labour in the Wirral would give the opposition parties 324 and put the Government into a true minority.

Incidentally, the Clerks at the House do not view matters in quite this light when it comes to calculating majorities on and chairmanships of Commons committees. According to them, Wirral South is still a Conservative seat and will remain so until there is a Labour member there. This absurd view conjures up a picture of a celestial Porter hovering benignly over the Conservative benches, giving off a slight whiff of strong spirits. Votes on the floor of the House, it need hardly be said, do not countenance such an absurdity. Once an honourable member is dead, dead he stays. He can no longer be "nodded through" the lobbies, as he could when he was too ill to vote but able to get to the House.

It is all very well for Mr John Prescott to tour the Wirral constituency with the candidate in tow and to issue "challenges" to Mr Major to set up the contest. What that amounts to is being willing to wound yet afraid to strike. And the question arises of why Mr Blair is so hesitant about taking on the Government.

Mr Dewar says that there is nothing worse for party morale than to be defeated in what is meant to be the decisive battle. Another possible explanation is that Labour do not want an election before March at the earliest. True, C R Attlee went to the country in February 1950 and won, whereas Sir Edward Heath had an election in February 1974 and lost.

Even so, March (which Harold Wilson successfully chose in 1966) is seen as the earliest possible month for Labour. This is because the organisers of the People's Party have a low opinion of their natural supporters. They are feckless, irresponsible, impossible to shift from their homes if there is a hint of rain or something good on television, altogether quite different from the solid citizens who adorn the Conservative Party. That, at any rate, is the Old Labour view. On present evidence, it does not appear that New Labour's opinion of its supporters is any different today.

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