... the blunder years

This Government has a talent for getting it wrong. Here we chart how they lost our trust
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The Independent Online
"NO WONDER," said the late John Smith in one of his more extravagant Parliamentary sallies, "we live in a country where the Grand National doesn't start and hotels fall into the sea." He had a point: not everything that goes wrong, by any means, can be laid at the door of the Government, but it is extraordinarily prone to accident and blunder.

It began only five months into the five-year term. The Tory manifesto in 1992 had stated that "membership of the ERM is now central to our counter- inflation discipline", but Black Wednesday, 16 September, saw Sterling driven out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

The effect was to deprive the Government of an economic policy and rob it of the public's trust. In the succeeding three years, virtually every opinion poll, by-election, and local government election, as well as the European elections, has shown that trust still eluding them. Interest rates, inflation and unemployment all fell, but the Government could not dig itself out of what Kenneth Clarke called "a dreadful hole". Higher taxes, growing job insecurity and a stagnant house market were part of the explanation, but so was the capacity for disaster - what Mr Smith called the "reverse Midas touch". Here, by way of a reminder, are some examples:

Coal: Within weeks of Black Wednesday came Michael Heseltine's blunt announcement that the coalmining workforce was to be cut by 60 per cent over six months: 31 pits were to close, and 30,000 jobs would be lost. Such was the outrage, even in the pit-free Home Counties, that Mr Heseltine agreed to review the matter, although the end result was not much different.

Arms to Iraq: Then there was the Matrix Churchill verdict, indicating that government ministers had been prepared to see innocent men jailed rather than admit to breaching an arms embargo. The affair, under investigation by Sir Richard Scott, resurfaced last week when the directors of another firm, Ordtec, were cleared on appeal.

VAT on fuel: When Norman Lamont, still Chancellor, extended VAT to domestic heating fuel, there was an immediate outcry. This, it was said, was a tax on old age and infirmity. A second phase, raising the rate to 17.5 per cent, was introduced by Kenneth Clarke a year ago and immediately had to be abandoned after seven Tories voted with the opposition to defeat it in the Commons.

Police reform: A plan to create "a police service for the 21st century" produced a rarity under a Conservative government, a protest from rank- and-file police officers. The idea was to streamline the police and increase cost-effectiveness, introducing contracts and performance-related pay. More than 20,000 officers attended a rally at Wembley to hear the plan denounced as "arrogant, hectoring and dismissive". In October 1993 the proposals were abandoned.

Lamont's departure: Mr Lamont did not resign on Black Wednesday, but hung on to his job another nine months. This was the period of "Threshergate", overdue Access bills and Treasury funding of his legal bill. When he was finally sacked, his revenge was swift and damning. He told the Commons: "The Government listens too much to the pollsters and the party managers ... As a result, there is too much short-termism, too much reacting to events and not enough shaping of events. We give the impression of being in office but not in power. Far too many important decisions are made for 36 hours' publicity."

Schools testing: John Patten's vigorous insistence on new national curriculum tests in schools brought him into conflict with teachers' unions which thought them "wrong, unworkable and not properly thought out". The unions agreed on a boycott, but only after an attempt to have the boycott ruled illegal was thrown out by the courts were concessions made. Eventually, a review by Sir Ron Dearing simplified and rationalised the tests, and a new education secretary, Gillian Shephard, agreed to delay league tables to let teachers "get on with the job".

The courts: In July 1993 five Law Lords ruled the former Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker, in contempt for deporting a Zairean teacher before his lawyers had time to apply for a judicial review. In a restatement of 17th- century principle, the Government's plea that ministers were above the law was thrown out. Michael Howard has been condemned for unilaterally changing the rules on the compensation of victims of crime, and for barring the Moonie leader Sun Myung Moon from the country, while the Foreign Office was ruled to have broken the law by using aid money to clinch an arms deal with Malaysia.

The press: In scandals involving David Mellor and Michael Mates the Prime Minister stood by his men, saying he and not the press would be the judge of their fitness to govern, and then, in the face of fierce criticism, abandoned them.

Back to Basics: More ministers, notably Tim Yeo, were driven out by scandal after Mr Major's "back to basics" party conference speech in 1993. He called for a return of self-discipline, respect for law, self-reliance and respect for others, and he insisted afterwards he had never meant it to include personal morality. Polls showed the public thought it should.

Prisons: The Government, determined to inject private sector discipline into the Prison Service, appointed a businessman, Derek Lewis, to reform it. Last month Mr Lewis was sacked after the Learmont Report found that the changes had made the service muddled and bureaucratic, and created the conditions for some spectacular escapes. Mr Lewis accused Michael Howard of making his job impossible.

Lottery: As the outgoing Conservative communications director, Hugh Colver, asked despairingly last week: "How can you lose on a policy which created over 100 millionaires in its first year and gave pounds 1bn to good causes and another pounds 1bn to the Treasury? It is a prize example of how to turn a public relations triumph into a disaster." Perhaps so much money was bound to cause envy, but decisions such as the purchase of the Churchill papers only made things worse.

The Post Office: A year ago, a Tory revolt forced Michael Heseltine to abandon legislation for the privatisation of the Post Office. The organisation needed private capital and commercial freedom to survive, the theory went, but backbenchers feared the effect on prices and on small post offices. They had the last word.

Rail privatisation: A different story. This was the measure even Margaret Thatcher's government balked at, but Mr Major pushed ahead. The result has been Railtrack (a company so high-handed it has managed the unlikely feat of making British Rail popular), and the cumbersome movement towards a rail network of dozens of private firms. Higher fares and fewer trains are widely expected. Even Major-General Lennox Napier, outgoing chairman of the rail users' body, likened the sell-off to a pantomine, except, he said, that "pantomimes should have a happy ending".

QMV: In March 1994 the Prime Minister made clear he would take a firm stand against any alteration of the EU's "Qualified Majority Voting" system. "We aren't going to do what the Labour Party do, which is to say yes to everything coming out of Europe," he told the Commons, branding Labour's John Smith "Monsieur Oui, the poodle of Brussels". Within days he had climbed down and accepted a formula proposed by Brussels.

Nolan: After a flood of sleaze scandals involving Tory MPs, John Major invited a committee under Lord Nolan to recommend ways of repairing Parliament's good name. Greater disclosure of members' interests was one answer, but some Tory MPs objected. A Parliamentary committee examined the Nolan proposals and the Tory majority made certain changes. John Major backed these changes, but they were firmly voted down in the Commons.

Fat cats: When the top pay scandals began, Mr Major said it was a matter for private business. Then he decided it was setting a bad example, and encouraged a semi-official inquiry under the well-paid Marks and Spencer boss, Sir Richard Greenbury. He proposed a tax on share options, and Kenneth Clarke instantly accepted the idea. Then it was pointed out that many "little cats" had share options, and first Sir Richard, then Mr Clarke changed their minds. The tax will go ahead, but only on new share options, so all the fat cats will keep their cream.