Whatever Mr Major says, this vote could topple him

Political Commentary
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The Independent Online
BEFORE Any Questions? or Question Time, the political participants are supplied by their respective headquarters with bulky dossiers setting out the party line on topics of the day. Old lags such as Mr Michael Heseltine leaf casually through the contents, then talk about the weather. However, most women - whether MPs or political "trusties" - seem terrified by their briefs. Their hair, so carefully set at the hairdressers only hours previously, becomes gradually disarranged. They end up, before going on the air, giving a convincing impression of a whirling dervish.

"There, there," I say, on those infrequent occasions when I am in a position to be of assistance. "Pray compose yourself. Take the word on the wing. Rely on your natural verbal brilliance. Hang the party line! It's much too late to learn it now."

I do not know whether this kindly advice does any good. What I always say is, a little sympathy never comes amiss.

This shows that, over Sir Richard Scott's report, the parties have behaved as they have always done in recent years, only more so. It is not, I hope, bias on my part to add that the Government has conducted itself even more shamelessly than the Opposition.

Last week I laid down the general principle: who gets to the microphone first, wins. This is really no more than an extension - to the peaceful surroundings of College Green, Westminster - of the revolutionary rule that the first and most crucial stage in any coup d'etat is to capture the radio station.

Throughout the week Mr Tony Blair has been trying to get it, or part of it - say, Radios 3 and 4 and BBC2 - back into his own hands. He has been busy at Prime Minister's Questions too. He has done quite well, forcing Mr John Major to reply that, if we are merchants of death, we are pretty fussy about the people we are prepared to deal with, rather like Coutts & Co.

The humbug about arms deal- ing is not new. Harold Wilson appointed a minister of disarmament in Lord Chalfont, who was not even a member of the Labour Party, and another minister to sell arms in Lord Brown, who was. There had been nothing like it since Jim Griffiths, as shadow Colonial Secretary, was photographed in Africa carrying an umbrella in one hand and a sunshade in the other.

Mr Blair has not told us about what previous Labour governments have got up to in these murky waters. Why should he? His task is to embarrass the Government and, if possible, to bring it down. I only wish that, having asked a perfectly good question, he would not end aggressively with: "Yes or no?". This adds nothing to the proceedings. Mr Blair knows that Mr Major is not going to give him a straight answer. If he finds himself in Mr Major's position, he will not be answering yes or no either.

He may find himself in this position sooner than he thinks. For it has been apparent to me for many months that this government's position is more fragile than most people recognise. Mr Peter Thurnham's declaration of independence (it is tendentious to call it a defection, because he has not defected anywhere) reduces the Government's majority to two. Though Sir Teddy Taylor has now pronounced himself more or less satisfied with ministers' conduct, Mr Rupert Allason, Mr Quentin Davies and Mr Richard Shepherd are still none too happy about it.

There is not much point in saying, as government propagandists masquerading as journalists do - no names, no writs - that Mr Allason is a rent-a-quote spy groupie, Mr Davies a disappointed man and Mr Shepherd forever bursting into tears. What the libel lawyers call "vulgar abuse" is more likely to persuade them to abstain or even vote against the Government. Then there are the Official Unionists, led by Mr David Trimble, who is not an old sweetheart of the Tories like Mr James Molyneaux, but easily the most impressive party leader.

Several journalists have written that the Government's men of business have displayed a fiendish ingenuity in holding tomorrow's debate on the motion for the adjournment. The reasons are supposed to be that the motion cannot be amended, and that the vote is not one of confidence.

But an unamendable motion has the great merit of simplicity. It means not only that the representatives of the People's Party do not have to exercise their minds over-strenuously but also that the television reporters do not get themselves in a muddle, as they customarily do over amendments. It is all straightforward. This leads to the second merit: that - contrary to what the business managers are asserting - a motion on the adjournment really is one of confidence or, at any rate, should be regarded as such. As Griffith and Ryle on Parliament puts it:

"It is possible ... for the Opposition to divide the House on the motion for the adjournment to express general dissatisfaction with the government's policies or attitude...Some major House of Commons debates have been held on the adjournment and finished with such divisions, including the critical debate on the conduct of the war, on 7 and 8 May 1940, which led to the fall of the Chamberlain government."

Certainly if Mr Major loses tomorrow - I am not predicting he will - it will still be open to him to seek a vote of confidence, though I should myself regard that course as smacking of sharp practice. But what he cannot do now is force the resignation of Sir Nicholas Lyell, Mr William Waldegrave or both and thereby safeguard the position of his government. The individual ministerial responsibility of Mr Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas has been subsumed under collective cabinet responsibility. "Sack them," Mr Major has effectively said, "and you sack us, for we as a government support everything they have done, or failed to do. There is no fault to be found anywhere."

Ten days ago - as the government troops, so to speak, seized the radio station - it appeared that this bold approach had worked. Matters do not look nearly so clear cut on this quiet Sunday morning. Sir Richard has played his part.

Everyone thought he had gone off quietly to pursue foxes in the Emerald Isle. Now here he is, rebuking (or, rather, getting his man to rebuke) Mr Ian Lang, or Mr Lang's man. Ministers have been parroting that there was "no conspiracy" and "no cover-up" when these phrases do not appear in his report. They were first used by Mr Lang and his colleagues; were put to Sir Richard at a press conference; and received his qualified assent. Now they are being trotted out like a comedian's catchphrase.

But what did Sir Richard expect? R A Butler never said that Anthony Eden was the best Prime Minister we had got. He merely assented to a journalist's question. James Callaghan never said: "Crisis? What crisis?". It was a headline in the Sun. As I have sometimes remarked, politics is a rough old trade. It is certainly rougher than anything to be found at Sir Richard's Chancery Bar.