Tempting predictions on the end of a sorry government

Political Commentary
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The Independent Online
THE MOST corrupting thing in political journalism is personal friendship. The next most corrupting is making forecasts. The first danger is obvious enough. If a politician becomes a friend, he may give you some information. But you are less likely to write about him in a disinterested way. The second danger is less insidious but more prevalent. If you give a forecast, you are tempted to try to make it come true - to depreciate or even suppress evidence which points in the opposite direction. These preliminary reflections are prompted by a forecast I have given several times: that the Government will not last the course, and that we shall have an election sooner rather than later.

There are 651 seats (to be increased to 659 at the election), of which 326 are held by Conservatives, including Dame Janet Fookes and Mr Michael Morris who, as deputy Speakers, do not vote. The same goes for the Labour members Madam Speaker Boothroyd and Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse, the third deputy Speaker. So in practice we must think of 647 MPs. Of these, there are 324 voting Conservatives.

The South-east Staffordshire by-election, brought about by the death of Sir David Lightbown, will make no difference to this figure even if Labour win it, as they are expected to do. The deceased Conservative is not included in the current Conservative strength. The present Conservative majority is two. If they lose the by-election, they will have a majority of one. If they lose another by-election, they will be down to 323, so losing any majority at all.

Sir Marcus Fox, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, did not envisage this possibility when he said, after the Government's win by one on Monday, that the worst was now over and it was full steam ahead to the election - to be held, if Mr John Major has his way, in April or May 1997. Almost certainly that wily Methodist Sir Marcus envisaged the possibility only too clearly, but judged it prudent not to mention it. It is difficult to imagine this government surviving beyond October or November. It will be hard enough getting through the summer, particularly if it is a hot one, for members' tempers rise with the thermometer.

Monday's vote showed that Mr Major could not expect anything from Mr David Trimble and the Official Unionists. It also showed - or what went before it showed - that they could not expect anything from Mr Major either. It is in the nature of the moves which he is constrained to make over Northern Ireland to displease rather than please Mr Trimble and his party. Lord Callaghan, to secure the support of the Unionists in 1976-79, increased the representation of Northern Ireland to 17. It brought about the resignation of Lord Stallard, then a Commons Whip. Its logic was that the province should become a more integrated part of the United Kingdom.

Whether Lord Callaghan and his colleagues really regarded this outcome as desirable is doubtful. Maybe they were only buying votes in the House. But a comparable course is not open to Mr Major. If he is to ensure the continuing esteem of Mr John Bruton and Mr John Hume, to say nothing of Mr Gerry Adams, there is little he can do to assuage Mr Trimble. From Mr Major's point of view, perhaps the most chilling words of last week were spoken by Mr Trimble's deputy, Mr John Taylor. He said that this was a government at the end of its life.

Contrariwise, Mr Tony Blair has been at pains to be agreeable to the Unionists. While preserving an ostensible bi-partisanship with Mr Major over Ireland, he has certainly done nothing to upset them. Labour's refusal to oppose the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, so reversing its previous policy, may have been brought about by the recent bombings and by a reluctance to be depicted by Mr Michael Howard as the party which, when it comes down to it, is soft on crime. But it has not done Labour any harm with the Unionists either.

Nor has it done any harm for Mr Blair to replace Mr Kevin McNamara, an old-fashioned Irish nationalist, with Ms "Mo" Mowlam, a new-fashioned Labour MP. Indeed, it appears that Ms Mowlam, the femme fatale of the People's Party, has cheered up these Presbyterians no end, bringing a little light and gaiety into their dour lives.

The Callaghan government lost its absolute majority in November 1976, when it was defeated in two by-elections on the same day. A previous by- election had been lost in June 1975, in Harold Wilson's time. And yet the government continued in office for just short of two and a half years. If Lord Callaghan managed it, why should Mr Major not be able to do likewise? After all, he has to hold out for only just over a year.

I am, as I pointed out at the beginning, conscious of the corrupting nature of predictions. I am trying to put factors in the balance on the other side. But I do not see how a government can survive a series of defeats, even though they may be followed by successful votes of confidence. In practice, no Prime Minister can keep asking for votes of confidence and preserve his government's self-respect.

The Callaghan years are not comparable. Not only is the position of the Northern Ireland MPs different. The Prime Minister also had the nationalist parties on his side until, understandably, they turned against him in 1979. They did this because, in November 1978, the then Labour MP Mr George Cunningham had erected a voting hurdle which the Scots had to clear before devolution could come about. This they failed to do, though the majority had voted in favour of devolution. The government was paralysed, the nationalists withdrew their support, the opposition put down a motion of censure and the government fell. Previously, in 1977-78, it had been sustained by the Lib-Lab pact. But Mr Major, who has been quite rude to Mr Paddy Ashdown over the years, can hardly approach the Liberal leader as Lord Callaghan approached Sir David Steel, even if he wanted to.

The Labour government was brought down over Scottish devolution. It may have lost the consequential election because of the trade unions' antics in 1978-79. But that was not what brought it down. My guess is that Mr Major's government will be brought down by Europe, which has already claimed two Chancellors, one Foreign Secretary and a Prime Minister.

It may still be, however, that because of the economy Mr Major would - like Lord Callaghan in 1978 - stand a better chance in the autumn than if he hung on into 1997. The Conservative conference is due to be held at Bournemouth from 4 to 11 October. This would give time to stage the conference and still call the election for 31 October. Traditionally, autumn elections have been held slightly earlier in that month. October used to be regarded as the correct month for the Conservatives to go to the country. Recently the fashion has shifted to April or June. Mr Major may be compelled to return to the old ways.