Rebellious abstentions could add up to an early election

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The Independent Online
IT IS too easily assumed that Mr John Major is master of his fate, at any rate as far as the timing of the election is concerned. He would ideally like to go to the country, we are confidently told, in autumn 1996, though spring or early summer m ight dojust as well (the favourite period of Lady Thatcher, who discarded the traditional Conservative preference for October). But then again, he might choose to run into the buffers, as Lord Home probably correctly did in 1964 - which would lead Mr Ma jor toMay 1997.

This kind of talk is great fun. Indeed, politicians commonly have only two topics of lively conversation. One is the date of the next general election. The other is who is to be the next leader of their party. The latter topic is being discussed with itscustomary animation; though, after Mr Major's more confident Commons performances of the past couple of weeks, with less urgency than in 1994. But it is still taken for granted that the date of the election is in the gift of the Prime Minister, whether he is Mr Major or some other Conservative.

This is now doubtful. It would have been doubtful even if eight MPs (subsequently joined by Sir Richard Body) had not been deprived of the whip. Even if it were to be restored - and on Thursday, introducing their manifesto, they looked remarkably cheerful about their deprivation - the Government's position would remain precarious. It is simple arithmetic.

The House contains 651 members. To possess an absolute majority, accordingly, the governing party must hold 326 seats. The Conservatives now hold 330 including those who are currently without the whip. It requires only five adverse by-elections for the Government to lose its majority. (A by-election success for an opposition party changes a government's majority in the voting lobbies not by one but by two. Here, however, we are concerned with the minimum number of members a government needs to say it can control the House.)

Technically, Mr Major no longer has an absolute majority in the Commons. However, if it is assumed that the rebels are no longer Conservatives but have disappeared into a kind of parliamentary limbo, he has a majority of four over the other parties. Moreover, the Speaker and three Chairmen of Committees have to be deducted from the House's total membership. This diminishes the number required in practice for an absolute majority to 324. But Mr Major's present majority would have been considered insufficient 50 years ago.

In 1950 Labour won 315 seats to the Conservatives' 298 and the Liberals' nine. This gave Labour a clear absolute majority - two more, in fact, than the 313 who would have been required to produce that result in those days. And yet the consequence was constitutional consternation. The Cabinet met and, after lengthy discussion, decided to carry on in government. Others were not so sure whether Labour could - or, indeed, whether it was right to try. A dissolution was thought to be imminent. There e n sued a learned correspondence in the Times concerning the King's prerogative to grant or refuse one. JW Wheeler-Bennett tells us in his Life of George VI that there was "some talk", presumably emanating from the Palace, of an all-party conference "to con sider the question of carrying on the King's government". This piece of royal impudence was rejected by both C R Attlee and Winston Churchill, and Attlee went on to form a government which lasted for 18 months.

Lord Wilson's 1964 government, which had a majority of four, stayed in office for the same period. In February 1974 Labour had four more seats than the Conservatives and formed a government but was in a minority in the House. The Palace indicated to LordWilson that, if he asked for a dissolution, no obstacles would be placed in his way. He duly requested one and, in October 1974, won with a majority of three over all other parties.

This majority was reduced when Mr Peter Bottomley gained Woolwich West for the Conservatives in June 1975. Soon after Lord Callaghan became Prime Minister, the late John Stonehouse decided to sit as an Independent and two Scottish members defected. Labo u r survived miraculously until 1979 through the Lib-Lab pact, an alliance with the Ulster Unionists and the wiles of Lord Cocks, the Chief Whip, and of Mr Walter Harrison, his deputy, who has scandalously received neither reward nor recognition for his ex ertions on behalf of the People's Party.

The question which brought Labour down was Scottish devolution, as was explained here last week in a short excursion into that darkest of dark ages, the day before yesterday. The question which may bring the present government down is Europe. It is a go o d rule, as much in political writing as in private conversation, to avoid the word "stupid". But we are entitled to make an exception when judging the conduct of Mr Major and Mr Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, in depriving eight members of the whip for ab staining (not, as the Cabinet's new mouthpiece, Mr Jonathan Aitken, mendaciously stated on Thursday, voting against the Government) in the first European vote.

Until Mr Rupert Allason was deprived of the whip for a minor eccentricity in 1993, the Conservative Party had managed to conduct its affairs with some success for the entire 20th century while visiting this sanction on only four members: Rowland Hunt in 1907, Sir Robert Newman in 1927, Sir Basil Peto in 1928 and A S Cunningham-Reid in 1942. E L Gandar Dower is sometimes incorrectly added to the list. He was elected for Caithness in July 1945. During the campaign he announced his intention of resigning his seat and seeking re-election after the defeat of Japan. But he failed to take this course. In 1948 he resigned the whip and sat as an Independent until 1950.

Resignation of the whip is, indeed, the course which Conservative dissidents have traditionally adopted, or have had thrust upon them. Whether any of the present whipless ones would have followed this path if Mr Major or Mr Ryder had suggested it is a matter for conjecture. In any case, in the present state of the Government's majority, there was no purpose in suggesting it - any more than there was in going a step further and forcibly depriving them of the whip.

What Mr Major and Mr Ryder have done is give coherence to a group which lacked that quality before. Even now, admittedly, the eight or nine are not a happily united band. Mr Nicholas Budgen is, to his credit, not a natural joiner. Mr William Cash has played no part in the proceedings, except for one abstention in last week's fishing vote.

The most rebellious members, with abstentions in the European vote and votes against on VAT and fishing, are Mr Tony Marlow and Mr Richard Shepherd. I allow one rebel point for an abstention and two for a vote against. They have five out of a maximum of six. On four are Mr Michael Carttiss, Mr Christopher Gill, Mrs Teresa Gorman, Sir Teddy Taylor and Mr John Wilkinson. They could bring about an election sooner than we think.