The Grim Reaper is taking Mr Major to the brink

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The Independent Online
The most corrupting thing in political or, indeed, in any other kind of journalism is personal friendship. The next most corrupting is making a forecast. It is so in two respects. The forecaster may try to make out that he has been proved right whatever the evidence to the contrary. He may attempt also by one means or another to make the forecast come true. Against both tendencies I am constantly on my guard.

For towards the middle of last year, certainly well before the beginning of the present session of Parliament, I predicted that Mr John Major's government would fail to last the winter. At that time he had a small but still an absolute majority. Some people who cannot see beyond their noses and think that everything stays the same thought that miraculously he would retain it. Others were prepared to acknowledge that he might lose it but thought that nevertheless he would contrive to reach his preferred date of 1 May 1997.

After all, Lord Callaghan had survived with a minority government in 1977-78 by means of the Lib-Lab pact. Even when the Liberals withdrew from the arrangement in 1978, he still managed to carry on until he was brought down by a combination of Conservatives, nationalists and Irishmen. The government fell because of its immobility in the face of the Scots' failure to jump the voting hurdle for securing devolution. The barrier had been erected by the Labour MP Mr George Cunningham. Contrary to mythology, the so-called winter of discontent had nothing to do with the matter - though it affected the subsequent general election.

Three politicians were principally responsible for Labour's survival in 1976-79 (for the government had lost its absolute majority in 1976, before the formation of the pact). They were Mr Michael Foot, the Leader of the House; Mr Michael Cocks, the Chief Whip; and Mr Walter Harrison, his deputy. Mr Cocks was ennobled. Mr Foot does not care for such baubles. And Mr Harrison? The former electrician retired from the lower House in 1987 and lives in his old constituency, Wakefield. I do not know whether he wants to be a member of the upper House. But if he does, and if membership of that body is to be conferred on persons who have done the party some service in their time - as it constantly is - Mr Harrison deserves at the very least a life peerage and would deserve a hereditary viscountcy if such peerages were not shortly to be abolished by his own party.

Here, incidentally, as we are on the subject, there is a certain ambiguity about Mr Tony Blair's intentions. When the proposal to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers was first muted, Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor- in-Waiting, let it be known that those of first creation would be spared. There were only a few of them, the best known being Lords Whitelaw and Tonypandy together with assorted members of the Royal Family. Now the message has changed: those to be preserved will be peers, not necessarily of first creation only, who play "an active part" in the deliberations of the House. Make of that what you will. I should guess that Lord Whitelaw would be saved for the nation, while the royal peers could safely be exported to the Getty Museum at Malibu in California without any fear of public protest; if, that is, the museum in question wanted them in the first place. No one seems to have thought of the position of the royals under Mr Blair's scheme. As with many of Labour's proposals, it comes apart when closely examined, like an old cardigan that has been got at by the cat. But this by the way.

Will Mr Tony Newton, Mr Alastair Goodlad and Mr Andrew MacKay go down in their party's history as Mr Foot, Lord Cocks and the unrewarded Mr Harrison have gone down in theirs? The Grim Reaper has been swinging his scythe as assiduously as I thought he would. Indeed, he has been reaping away like billy-o, cutting down Tories even before they have been given the opportunity to collect their Senior Railcards. Barry Porter of Wirral South was 57, and Iain Mills of Meriden, who died last week, only 56.

Next to this sad death, the most interesting domestic political news of recent weeks has been that Mr Major intends to anticipate Mr Blair and move (or, rather, get Mr Newton to move) the writ for the Wirral by- election within the conventional three months of the member's death. I write "anticipate": but whether Mr Blair would really have been prepared to breach that other convention, whereby moving the writ for a by-election is for the party holding the seat, is still unresolved. If Dr Brian Mawhinney, who made the promise, keeps his word, the by-election can be held as early as 20 February, though 6 March is a more realistic date because a new register will have to be produced.

The Conservative majority is 8,183. A win for the Government at the Wirral might have the same effect on Mr Major as the win at Hull North had on Harold Wilson in 1966. It might encourage him to go to the country before his preferred date. The parallel is not, however, exact. It rarely is. But on this occasion it is even more inexact than usual. At Hull Mr Kevin McNamara, who is happily still with us, even though he has had to surrender his Northern Ireland portfolio, transformed a Labour majority of 1,181 at the 1964 election into one of 5,351.

A comparable Conservative performance at the Wirral would see the candidate home by 37,000; which, as Euclid would have said, is absurd. Even hanging on to the seat at all will be accounted an unexpected triumph. It is more likely that, whatever happens at the Wirral, Mr Major will retain 1 May in his mind. In practice this means that the Government has to survive until 27 March, the day before Good Friday. Campaign periods of as long as six weeks have been known, and very trying they have proved to all concerned. This imposition would bring the survival date back to 20 March.

Mr Blair now says, what he had not been prepared to say before, that he wants to bring the Government down. My suspicion is that he is less than wholehearted about it because of the hallowed Labour belief that its supporters are a shiftless and irresponsible lot, who cannot be bothered to cast their votes if there is a drop of rain in the air or a good programme on the television. True, C R Attlee went to the country in February 1950. But in 1951 he went in October. Harold Wilson in April, June and October, and Lord Callaghan, involuntarily, in May.

If, however, Mr Blair really means what he says, the amendments which Lord Rodgers is trying to make to Mr Michael Howard's Bill tomorrow provide the best chance he is likely to get. This iniquitous measure allows the police, on the authority of only a chief constable, to intrude into and bug the private property not only of possible criminals but of everyone who may be associated with them: journalists, naturally - no one ever worries about journalists - but doctors, solicitors, even barristers as well. No wonder the Establishment is worried, and that the Inns of Court are up in arms! Eminent lawyers such as Lords Alexander and Bingham are opposed to it. Even Mr Jack Straw has now belatedly come out against it. It may prove to be the opportunity that Mr Blair is looking for.