The time and the issue are wrong, Mr Blair

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The Independent Online
For some months I have been asking and others have been wondering: "Why doesn't Tony Blair bring the Government down? What is the matter with him? Why is he holding back?" Now that at last he is having a go, I have a sense of impending anti-climax. I may be proved mistaken tomorrow evening. But I feel he has chosen the wrong issue at the wrong time, has laid inadequate political foundations for the vote and will bring about the disappointment on his own side which the Labour Chief Whip, Mr Donald Dewar, has so far been at such pains to avoid. Mr Blair may conclude that there is no justice in this world, least of all from political columns. But there, I am afraid, it is.

Let us have a look first at the issue, BSE. The panic started last year when the Minister of Health, Mr Stephen Dorrell (rather than the Minister of Agriculture, Mr Douglas Hogg), made an announcement to the Commons. This was a catastrophic exercise in that open government for which, incidentally, the People's Party is showing markedly less enthusiasm as its own turn in office approaches. There was not the slightest need for Mr Dorrell to make his statement - certainly not in the form in which he chose to make it. Most politicians are as unqualified as most editors to understand the simplest questions of science. Mr Dorrell should simply have told the boffins to get on with it instead of himself causing alarm and despondency.

There was, however, more despondency among beef farmers and supermarket chains than in newspaper offices. Indeed, the papers loved it. The Prig Press yelled at the top of its voice in happy harmony with the Tory Tabloids. There is nothing that is better for circulation than a good health scare, unless it is a really horrible murder.

The beef crisis had all the ingredients: grasping farmers, incompetent scientists, dishonest politicians. The politicians had in fact been rather more honest than they are normally, and look where it got them! Islington united with Essex, while Guardian woman walked hand-in-hand with the editor of the Daily Mail.

But oddly enough the Labour Party held itself aloof from the terrible scenes of consternation and alarm. It did not attack the Government as it could have done and was urged to do. To this extent, the exchange between Mr John Major and Mr Blair at Prime Minister's Questions on Thursday represented a re-writing of political history. But then, there is no period so remote as the day before yesterday. It is the darkest of dark ages.

It suits Mr Major's purposes, as the general election approaches, to make out that Labour has been unpatriotically attacking the Government for reasons of the most squalid party advantage, giving no thought to the tribulations of the yeomen of England or, for that matter, of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Equally, it now suits Mr Blair very well to be depicted as the fearless champion of the woman with the trolley in the supermarket, unmoved by vested interests and concerned only with the common weal.

It is all great nonsense. It was not like that at all. Mr Blair and his colleagues were petrified; or, if they were not rendered completely immobile, they certainly walked as delicately as Agag, the King of the Amalekites, is supposed to have done according to 1 Samuel xv.32.

Their caution increased perceptibly once the Europeans had adopted a hostile posture. Indeed, when Mr Major announced the withdrawal of co- operation in Europe, Mr Robin Cook gave this petulant move a qualified welcome. "They don't like it up 'em": that was what Mr Cook, echoing Corporal Jones of Dad's Army, seemed to be suggesting. "We don't actually support this withdrawal of co-operation, but still we hope it succeeds": that was the message which seemed to be coming from the Labour benches.

The explanation for this hesitant attitude throughout most of 1996 was that Labour did not wish to be placed in a position where it could be depicted by the Conservatives as unpatriotic. The Ghost of Suez pays occasional visits to the Palace of Westminster. It hovers over the opposition benches, reminding their occupants that three years after that fiasco Harold Macmillan won a majority of a hundred.

Accordingly the issue is not one on which Mr Blair can honestly mount much of a case. Honesty often plays a greater part in politics than you might think. But even if we judge tomorrow's occasion by less exigent criteria, the omens for Labour are not propitious.

A motion to reduce a minister's salary is a perfectly respectable one to move. The traditional figure is pounds 100 rather than the pounds 1,000 which Labour is trying to levy on Mr Hogg. But the exercise belongs to a previous age, when ministers were regarded as responsible individually to the House of Commons. Now they are taken under the umbrella of collective responsibility. "To attack Douglas Hogg is to attack us all": that is Mr Major's approach. Sometimes, it is true, an unpopular or expendable minister will be thrown to the lions to appease the mob. Stanley Baldwin dispatched Sir Samuel Hoare over the Hoare-Laval Pact, even though that agreement had been given the prior approval of the Cabinet. Lady Thatcher made short work of Sir Leon Brittan over the leaking of the Solicitor-General's letter in the Westland affair, even though she herself had (through her creature, Sir Bernard Ingham) been responsible for the leak.

There must have been some temptation to treat Mr Hogg in the same way. He is - how can one put this? - certainly not the most popular member of the Cabinet. The Sunday Telegraph referred recently to his "Etonian charm". It is, I must confess, an attribute which has so far eluded me, as it has most of his colleagues. Indeed, one of them said to me that he should have resigned long ago and that, if he had not been prepared to resign, he should have been sacked. But there he is, in situ until the election, and the lads are rallying round. They would have rallied more enthusiastically round Neville Chamberlain in May 1940 if they had been voting on a censure motion instead of on a motion for the adjournment.

Nor has Mr Blair been very clever with the minor parties. Last autumn the Liberal Democrats put down an almost identical motion to tomorrow's. Labour refused to support it officially. This bears out what I have been saying about Labour's attitude during most of 1996. Only 30-odd Labour members voted with the Liberal Democrats on that occasion. They could not be blamed at all if they refused to support Labour tomorrow. But, reluctantly, they will. So much for the Lib-Lab co-operation about which we have heard so much recently.

Then there are the Ulster Unionists. If the Liberal Democrats are cross, the Unionists are crosser. They are also embarrassed, because they do not know quite what to do. In 1979, when the Callaghan government fell, the Independent member for Fermanagh, Frank Maguire, paid one of his infrequent visits to Westminster, as he put it, "to abstain in person". Tomorrow it looks as if the Ulster Unionists will help keep the Major government in office by staying away.