The only excitement left is the election itself

Alan Watkins on politics
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The Independent Online
This column does not believe in - is not, I trust, known for - becoming over-excited. The cooling hand on the fevered brow: this is the effect which it strives to produce, with what degree of success I cannot say. Nevertheless the result of the Wirral South by-election brings about not only the probability of a clear Labour majority on 1 May but the possibility of a Labour landslide.

It is now fairly safe to assume that date since the Official Unionists agreed to sustain the Government in return for a promise of a Northern Ireland Grand Committee, on which Mr David Trimble had unaccountably set his heart. If its proceedings are as tedious as those of the Scottish Grand Committee (or the even more narcoleptic Welsh Grand Committee), Mr Trimble will soon be able to put up a brass plate as a psychiatrist specialising in the treatment of insomnia.

I predicted several times that Mr John Major would not last out the winter; or that, even if he managed to survive the winds and the storms, which as a fairly young man in good health he was likely to do, the Grim Reaper would cut down enough of his elderly colleagues to put the Conservatives in a minority. Well, the Reaper has been reaping away like billyo, but specialising in Conservatives in their fifties. The effect I predicted has now been produced. But Mr Major is still there and, thanks to the Unionists, looks like staying where he is. Unlike Mr Nicholas Soames, I have contemplated resigning my position but, like Mr Soames, have decided against, on the basis that I was at least half-right in foreseeing that the Government would lose its majority and that no one can be right about everything.

At this time of the week, just after a by-election, some of my colleagues extract an article from a drawer, dust it down, write a new beginning and a new end, add a few names, change some dates, and put it in the paper under a title like "Why By- elections Don't Really Tell Us Anything". The Times has a particularly trusty old model which it wheels out on these occasions to display in its leader column.

I have never subscribed to this view. I do not believe it is true. Manifestly some by-elections do produce substantial, even cataclysmic political effects. It is not so much that the party which won goes on to retain the seat at the general election - though Mr Simon Hughes, for one, still represents the seat he secured at a by-election 14 years ago. It is, rather, that the political weather is changed. For instance, Lady Thatcher fell partly because the Conservatives had lost Eastbourne in October, and polled disastrously in Bootle and Bradford North early in November.

It is, however, a myth that Harold Wilson went to the country in March 1966 on account of Labour's win in the Hull North by-election. He had decided firmly on an early election before Hull voted. Indeed, had Labour lost, the then government would in Wilson's view have had to go to the country anyway, because its majority would have been down to one. His political secretary, Lady Falkender, has written that after Christmas 1965 Wilson had already decided that whatever happened the election would be in March 1966 and that this was the best and only possible time.

Mr Major, unlike Wilson, has no choice, except to go before 1 May, which he will not do unless he has a brainstorm. If he does have one, it is an unresolved constitutional point whether the Cabinet can overrule him over asking the Queen for a dissolution. It is certainly one of the persistent errors of textbook writers that the dissolution of Parliament is never discussed in Cabinet. On the contrary: it is often discussed, though the precise date is usually settled by a select group of Cabinet ministers and party apparatchiks. Conservative leaders since Lady Thatcher have shown a particular attachment to Chequers as a weekend venue for these discussions. I should have thought this was an abuse of the purposes for which the house in question was bequeathed to the nation. But let that pass.

Though we may accept that the Cabinet can and does have a say in the timing of an election, can it prevent the prime minister from asking for a dissolution if enough ministers believe he has made a mistake? The question is not wholly theoretical. It arose in the Maastricht debate in 1993. Mr Major said that if he did not win a crucial vote, he would call a general election. The Whips believed him. At any rate they told their charges that they did.

His senior colleagues, however, demonstrated either scepticism or a belief that he had taken leave of his senses. They had no intention of allowing Mr Major to call a general election. They would have called for a vote of confidence instead. In the event this proved unnecessary, for the Government won the necessary division by a vote. And if it had failed? "We wouldn't have let him get half-way down the Mall," one of the colleagues said.

Something under four years later we are unlikely to witness similar excitements. Ministers will just carry on, bickering away like an old married couple - though Lord Tebbit's assault on Mr Michael Heseltine in this week's Spectator is reminiscent not so much of bickering as of saucepan throwing. The excitement, if there is any, will come with the result of the election. From the Wirral there is not a crumb of comfort for the Government, though Dr David Carlton will no doubt try to extract one or two in next week's Spectator. Like Dr Carlton, I believe more in counting people than in calculating swings. At the Wirral, the Labour vote was up from 17,407 to 22,767 and the Conservative vote down from 25,590 to 14,879. The turnout was down from 50,344 to 43,293, so if all the missing 7,051 voted Conservative at the election, it would still leave Labour with a narrow majority of 837.

At the beginning I mentioned the possibility of a Labour landslide. What do I mean by this? My definition is simple. It is a state of affairs where the Labour Party holds a majority of seats in England. In 1950, 1964 and March 1974 Labour formed an administration with fewer English seats than the Conservatives. In 1945, 1966 and October 1974 the party had more seats than the Conservatives. But in only two of the post- war elections - in 1945 and in 1966 - did Labour hold over 50 per cent of the seats in England.

It is not much to ask on the face of things. Yet it is extraordinarily difficult for Labour to attain in practice. And it will be of some significance in the next Parliament if Mr Tony Blair persists with his at present sketchy plans for devolution. A Labour majority in England will take some of the sting out of the so-called West Lothian question, though it will not answer the question, because there is no answer to it.

The political problem can be simply stated. Since 1979 the Scots have been complaining noisily about being governed by Conservative administrations which they did not want. Yet in 1950-51, 1964-66 and 1974-79 the English were governed by Labour administrations which most of them did not want either. The English did not complain as loudly as the Scots, but their cause was equally just. It is possible they may be more demanding - and worse tempered - after 1 May if Mr Blair does not carry the whole of England with him too.