Time to lose your self-control, Mr Major

The Prime Minister has been soft on unruly backbenchers for too long; now he must get tough
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The Independent Online
God save us from Honourable Members. As the behaviour of the sillier and greedier of them finally brings closer new rules for all of them, the most senior figures in Parliament, the Prime Minister and the Speaker, have both become backbench targets. This column is rarely enthusiastic about authority figures; but this is a day for exceptions.

First, the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd. The affair of Sir Jerry Wiggin and his deceitful amendment has drawn her into her first really serious spate of bad publicity, with attacks both from Labour MPs and the tabloid press for letting the arrogant and silly man off with an apology. Senior Opposition MPs have been spitting blood and asking: what sort of message does that send out to the rule-twisting Tories?

Speaker Boothroyd, however, was in a quandary which her Labour critics cannot admit existed. She could have referred the Wiggin matter to the Privileges Committee. That would have been the easy thing to do. The trouble is that the Privileges Committee, like the less senior Members' Interests Committee, has become part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Once these committees weren't much good because they were too cosy. Now they aren't any good because they have become cockpits for a savage party struggle.

There was no golden age of genteel self-regulation. The Privileges Committee was well-described by the Labour MP Tony Wright, who looked into its findings over the past two decades and concluded that they represented the triumph of the ''club culture''. It needed the willing engagement of all parties in a collusion designed to make MPs' lives more congenial.

Now Labour and the Liberal Democrats have finally realised that it is no longer in their interests to be part of that. Sleaze stories have been a Tory problem: why should the Opposition be ''good parliamentarians'' and help the Conservatives out of a hole they have dug and fouled for themselves?

Tony Benn stormed out of the Privileges Committee over its refusal to meet in public during the cash-for-questions affair; that was followed by a grim party stand-off. In the Members' Interests Committee, which investigated the affair of Neil Hamilton and the Ritz hotel bill, the Labour MPs walked out en masse.

This breakdown in relations culminated in the row over the past few days about the setting-up of a new committee to implement - or is to water down? - the Nolan recommendations about the publication of MPs' earnings from parliamentary consultancies. Here, too, Labour is in a belligerent mood, and has perhaps won key concessions from the Government (though its words are slippery as a bucketful of buttered eels).

This is good Opposition politics, but hardly helped Speaker Boothroyd. Her job isn't to aid the Labour crusade, though it is plain from her frustrated comments from the Chair that she is desperately keen for the Nolan recommendations to be implemented. Had she lifted Sir Jerry up by his earlobes and deposited him with the Privileges Committee, she would have merely ensured further rows, further walkouts and a long-delayed conclusion.

She must have been disgusted by the tone of the debate on Nolan last week - if one can dignify such a self-interested and unedifying honking and squealing with the name of ''debate''. The idea that by forcing Wiggin to eat dirt she was setting a bad precedent for future referrals to the Privileges Committee is preposterous. This system of self-regulation is dying; quite soon precedents from the pre-Nolan era will become irrelevant.

Famously salt-tongued in private, Boothroyd must know this, but can't say so; it would be wiser if Labour MPs gave her the benefit of their doubts.

But in this unholy mess, the hostility with which some Labour MPs view her matters less than the snarling way Conservative MPs have been turning on the Prime Minister. Like Boothroyd, John Major has made it pretty plain that he agrees with the Nolan recommendations on the publication of MPs' income. He would: he is a fairly frugal man, with an almost simplistic belief in public service.

These are not traits shared by many of his backbench critics as they sharpen their tongues into daggers for an autumn assassination. The idea that their constituents should discover their earnings is abominable. They already face losing their seats because of the Tory unpopularity they blame on Major. Now he's going for their consultancies. Hear the voice of self-pity: ''He's already taken away our jobs. Now he wants to take our money, too.''

Major's dilemma is acute. If he refuses to try to force the Tory party to accept the Nolan recommendations on MPs' earnings, he will be doing his bit to add to the already extreme sense of public disgust about his party and Parliament.

But if Major follows his instincts and tries to whip the party through the pro-Nolan lobbies, he will be hardening the resolve of the self-interested and panicky clique of plotters on the backbenches who want to get rid of him. He would win in the Commons, since Labour would join the Government payroll vote and any Tory rebellion would be left pinkly isolated. But he would probably ensure an attempt on his political life in November. Damned if he doesn't, dumped if he does?

In the end, I think he has no choice. He is faced with such a stinking conspiracy of raddled Thatcherite romantics, newspaper loonies, oppositionist xenophobes and spineless, gutless, pointless backbench panickers that he might as well take on the fat-cheque-takers, too. To put it as crudely as he would himself, most of the shits are against him anyway.

This could be a source of some strength. He has compromised about far too much far too often in the past, but he has reached the stage on this issue where compromise is pointless. He might as well do the right thing. He might as well side with the voters against his backbenchers.

They may kick him out for it. But it would be quite a way to go: the man who tried to clean up corruption in the House of Commons and was thrown out of office by his own party as a result. And how would that play for Tory candidates at the general election? Like deserting soldiers who stop to plunder and fill their pockets before fleeing the field, they would be cut down.

Throughout his prime ministership, John Major has been a man who swallows his anger in public, and smiles, and strokes, and temporises. He controls himself so rigidly that he can seem like a grinning automaton. In private, however, he rages, and bangs tables and speaks forthrightly; even with eloquence.

Perhaps it is finally time for him to summon the parliamentary Conservative Party and give it to them straight; to speak to them all in public as he speaks about some of them in private. He has had a bloody few years in office and his party is as ill-disciplined and disliked as ever. They are heading for electoral disaster and out of control. So what's the point of restraint from No 10? For once, the Prime Minister owes it to himself to lose control.

Polly Toynbee's column will appear on Friday.