The PM still has the German lavatory card up his sleeve

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The Independent Online
A few weeks ago I wrote that Mr John Major's great political talent was for doing the unexpected. Well, with his go-slow or work-to-rule in Europe (evocative epithets, recalling as they do what was, paradoxically, a gentler era in our national life), Mr Major has done it again. In a quarter of an hour last Tuesday, he united his party, put the entire Tory press onside and discomposed the Opposition or, at any rate, the Labour part of it.

Obviously the ploy may go wrong. He may simply shift into reverse, as he has over so many matters, from delinquent ministers who had originally enjoyed the Prime Minister's fullest confidence to the voting rights of the United Kingdom in the Council of Ministers. Or his defiance may trickle into the sands, as so many of Mr Major's "initiatives" have, from the Citizen's Charter to traffic cones on motorways. Or, again, the Europeans (whether as individual states or as the Community, as I shall continue to call it until it really does become a union) may retaliate in all kinds of unexpected ways.

It is not inconceivable, after all, that the UK could be expelled. Whether this would count as the ploy's going wrong is a matter of opinion. It is a prospect which I should face with such fortitude and equanimity as I could summon. It would certainly transform British politics. Mr Major has not done that; or not yet. What he has done is, to quote the phrase that was used of Joseph Chamberlain, make the weather. Only the non-Tory- supporting broadsheets, the Independent and the Guardian (what, with the Observer, I term the Prig Press), were opposed root-and-branch to his threat.

They were not, however, entirely alone. In the Times Lord Rees-Mogg, no Europhile he these days, thought the Prime Minister a weak man behaving in a weak way. "And what," a minister said to me, "has William Rees-Mogg ever done in his life except lose us a by-election in Chester-le-Street?" The question, while no doubt insufficiently recognising the great columnist's numerous achievements, illustrated Conservative irritation at anything less than complete unanimity. The only other dissenting voice that I was able to hear belonged to Mr Simon Heffer in the Daily Mail, who reprobates Mr Major for not having got us out of Europe years ago and was, as far as I could see, the only commentator anywhere to maintain that Mr Tony Blair had put up a more impressive performance than the Prime Minister.

I would not go as far as that myself. But I nevertheless think Mr Blair's performance has been evaluated with a lack both of generosity and of political understanding. The journalistic culture of today treats any discourse between politicians as a fight in which one party is knocked out, is badly hurt and retires, or loses on points. But the boxing analogy which is now virtually universal is of limited application. Mr Blair was less concerned with knocking Mr Major out than with avoiding giving offence to Labour supporters in the country. Since then, in Rome and elsewhere, he has travelled even further down the road of national unity. The party is obsessed with not appearing unpatriotic.

At Suez Hugh Gaitskell started off by condemning Egypt unequivocally but progressed to attacking the Eden government's invasion with even greater force. Historians still dispute whether Gaitskell changed his mind. Clearly, one could criticise Nasser without necessarily supporting Eden at the same time. But it remains part of Labour mythology that the party's attitude towards Suez helped lose the 1959 election. Likewise with the Falklands War. At first Mr Michael Foot denounced the Argentinian aggression. Gradually, however, the party (with Lord Healey even more pacific than Mr Foot) turned against Lady Thatcher's conduct of the war. This attitude is believed by some to have helped Labour lose the 1983 election even more heavily than they would have done otherwise - though there is some opinion poll evidence that the tide was turning towards the Conservatives before the war. In 1990-91 Mr Neil Kinnock kept the party together, just, behind the Gulf War, though that did not seem to do any good in 1992.

All Mr Blair is prepared to say (and since Tuesday he has been saying even this less loudly) is that the beef crisis has been brought about by the Government's incompetence. So it has, but not in the way Mr Blair seems to think. The incompetence lay in having Mr Stephen Dorrell make a statement which could only cause panic rather than in getting on quietly with eradicating BSE without telling anybody except those who had to know. Open government is not always the best form of government.

For most people are idiots when it comes to food panics. The Germans, who are giving so much trouble, are particularly idiotic. All sorts of things are bad for you. In my youth I knew a man whose eccentricity, to begin with, was his refusal to do up the press stud between the peak of his cloth cap and the rest of it: with the consequence that the cap billowed upwards, giving him the appearance of a German officer. He was, like many Welsh miners of his generation, an admirer of the novelist Jack London. The Iron Heel was, I remember, a particular favourite. In the course of his wide reading he also picked up the notion that there was no better form of nutrition than raw carrots. A bachelor living with his mother, he was able to indulge his discovery fully, and became known, inevitably though perhaps not very originally, as "Dai Carrots". He gradually turned orange and died relatively young, though whether from his diet or from some other cause I am in no position to say.

The Germans are not really very different from him. They are obsessed by their health, and in a most strange way. They have, after all, designed and, as far as I know, largely use a lavatory bowl incorporating a sort of observation platform, on which faeces may be closely inspected in their original state, uncontaminated by water or any other deleterious substance. The consequence is that going to the lavatory in Germany is an unpleasant experience. No doubt the Germans are very good, better than we are, at making cars, refrigerators, washing-machines and other useful appliances. But on anything requiring ordinary sense, as distinct from engineering, musical or footballing ability, I should give them a wide berth.

Mr Major's action has not only produced the effects which I noted at the beginning but also, as a direct consequence of those effects, caused speculation about an early general election. Even July has been mentioned. I have long thought autumn a distinct possibility, with December (when an election was last held in 1923) an outside chance. A pollster appeared on our television screens last week saying that, if Mr Major did go in the autumn, he would undoubtedly lose. Well, the pollsters were wrong in 1970, in February 1974 and in 1992. Until they can be proved wrong again, Mr Major is putting his trust in Europe to rescue him.