Tories seek exorcist to see off their malevolent ghost

Political Commentary
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The Independent Online
IN NOVEMBER 1990 the Conservative Party committed matricide. It has been trying to live with the consequences ever since. What makes this process more difficult is that mother's ghost pays periodic visits to the son and heir, causing alarm and apprehension all round. She was at it again last week. There is even talk of bringing in one of those dodgy Church of England clergymen to perform a service of exorcism. But it is felt that this course would cause further disunity in the party or, at any rate, in those sections of it which still maintain an interest in matters spiritual. In any case, there is dispute about whether the service could most effectively be conducted in Downing Street, at the BBC television studios or at Hatchards bookshop.

She certainly presented a most alarming spectacle when she made an appearance before Sir David Frost, who took the precaution of falling sound asleep. Her smile bore no relation to what she or Sir David was saying. Her teeth seemed to have been specially sharpened for the occasion. She pouted, and simpered, and tossed her head like Dame Maggie Smith playing Lydia Languish in The Rivals. The principle seems to be that you cannot over- act.

Likewise, as Dr Goebbels discovered, the bigger the lie, and the more often repeated, the more efficacious the propaganda. For example: Lady Thatcher knows perfectly well that the sovereignty of Parliament was surrendered in the European Communities Act 1972, which laid down that European law should prevail over the United Kingdom variety. Not only did she make no attempt to repeal or amend this statute (for either course would have led to our expulsion from the European Community because we should have broken the Treaty of Rome). More than this, she pushed through another measure, the Single European Act 1986, which she now says she did not properly understand at the time. She was further persuaded, chiefly by Mr Douglas Hurd, though Mr John Major also played a part, to join the exchange rate mechanism which we were to leave so ignominiously two years later.

It is the same story with the collapse of the housing market. This has little to do with the successive reductions in mortgage interest tax relief. It is a consequence of the artificial inflation of house prices of the late 1980s, mainly brought about by the easy credit encouraged, even engineered, by Lady Thatcher's Chancellor, Lord Lawson.

Commodities usually sell for less than they cost to buy. This is true not only of cars and boats but also of furniture and books. You just try getting pounds 500 for a table which you know will be selling for double that amount next day in Camden Passage, London N1. "Don't want to be rude, but it's old rubbish really, squire, though tell you what, I'll give you a hundred to take it off your hands." Houses are felt to be different. Indeed, the trade in houses has always been different. But, as Lady Thatcher herself once observed, you cannot buck the market. The most any government can do is to persuade the financial institutions to cut down repossessions and to forego a proportion of capital or interest repayment, or of both.

Mr Major still had Tuesday to come. Shortly after four he attended a meeting organised by Mr Michael Spicer. He is a Europhobe who, unlike the nine who lost the Whip, prefers to do his work quietly. In 1990 he was Minister for Housing but resigned because he thought Mr Major would not keep him in his job. He has written several novels, including Prime Minister Spy and Cotswold Mistress, which I regret I have not read.

There were about 60 malcontents at the meeting. They wanted Mr Major to declare against a single European currency, whether before the election or in any future Parliament controlled by the Conservatives. Mr Major refused. He echoed HH Asquith. "Wait and see," he said. The Europhobes were furious. In fact they were very rude. There had been nothing like it since Asquith's daughter, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, was shouted down at the Torquay Liberal Assembly of 1958. And she was not even prime minister, though she gave a fair imitation of one.

By the way, in all the heat generated inside the Conservative Party by Europe, everyone seems to have forgotten that it is a necessary condition that we should be members of the ERM before we can even contemplate joining a single currency. As the Government shows no sign of rejoining, Mr Major's critics might impose on themselves a period of silence. Really, they are like the Labour left in 1959-63 on nuclear disarmament, who spent their time denouncing weapons whose workings they did not understand and over which their leaders did not exercise the slightest control. In this period nuclear disarmament was a pretext for jettisoning the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell. Today, similarly, Europe provides an excuse for getting rid of Mr Major.

A few hours earlier he had heard Mr Michael Heseltine declare from the dispatch box that his department, Trade (of which he was not then President), should have known that the firm BMARC was exporting arms to Iran through Singapore. Mr Jonathan Aitken, churchwarden and Arabist, was a director of the firm at the relevant time. "My Right Hon. friend the Chief Secretary of the Treasury," Mr Heseltine reminded the House, "has already made his position clear. . . on 30 March, when he said that he was never given any indication or information that could suggest that BMARC's contract with Singapore might subsequently result in components being shipped to Iran."

This is something less than a ringing endorsement. However, what it suggests is not so much that Mr Heseltine is trying to do down Mr Aitken as that he is preparing to fight Mr Major in the autumn as the only member of the present administration with clean hands - and the ability to win an election.

By then Mr Major will have been Prime Minister for five years. Of 20th century prime ministers, he will have served for longer than AJ Balfour, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Bonar Law, Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Eden, Alec Douglas-Home, Edward Heath and James Callaghan. No one will be able to claim that he has not had a fair chance. Yet this is the impression which Mr Major is adept at conveying. And, in an odd way, there is some truth in it.

In November 1990, he wanted to produce not only a classless society (which would have placed him somewhere to the left of Mr Tony Blair) but also a nation at ease with itself, an objective that would have been approved by most Conservative leaders up to and including Lord Home. He has failed not because he has rejected Lady Thatcher's legacy but for precisely the opposite reason: he has been unable to free himself from the encumbrances of a debt-ridden estate. This is a political failure on his part. It is not the analysis which those who are now after the Prime Minister's head would make for themselves or accept from anyone else. But the result is the same: Heseltine for King!