When the captain's support leads to an early bath: Political Commentary

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The Independent Online
SINCE John Major assumed the captaincy of the Old Incompetents over three years ago, he has led his team to crushing defeat against the Fleet Street Reptiles. The score now stands at 1-4. No wonder they call him 'the man with two uneducated left feet'. His fatal indecision has brought about spectacular own goals by Tim Yeo, Dave Mellor, Mickey ('Colonel') Mates and Norman ('Wee Norrie') Lamont, who is known on the terraces as 'the Praed Street Phantom'.

His one goal was scored by athletic Steve Norris, wearing the Ministry of Transport shirt. The lad just refused to give up. He was everywhere. In fact he had more mistresses about the field than I have usable pairs of shoes.

Perhaps the explanation was that Mr Major neglected to come to his aid. The No 10 spokesmen and Sir Norman Fowler did not pledge their support. When this Prime Minister gives his backing to some erring member of the administration, it is time for the politician concerned to start becoming reaccustomed to public transport.

The Norris story was deliberately timed to break in the week of the Conservative conference. In that way, the Reptiles thought, the greatest embarrassment would be caused to the Government, the maximum sale of their newspapers ensured. They may have been right about the latter hope but they were wrong about the former.

One backbencher (himself something of a lad) confided to me that Mr Norris would 'have to go', that it was 'only a question of time'. But most of the people at Blackpool were preoccupied with other matters entirely, such as Lady Thatcher's latest antics. Mr Major and his aides were too busy preparing his speech on 'Back to Basics' to bother their heads with Mr Norris's strenuous activities. So the Lothario of Epping Forest survived. Good for Steve]

In Mr Mellor's case a Conservative gathering worked in the opposite way, to his disadvantage. He might have lasted if the House had not been recalled to finish off the Maastricht business, so enabling Sir Marcus Fox to suffer one of his periodical fits of morality.

It is said that the real reason why Mr Mellor had to go was that he had accepted not only free holidays from a benefactress but free air tickets. Well, I do not know about that. The morality of holidays and tickets is much confused. I am told that when the Duke of Beaufort invites one to Badminton - not, I confess, a privilege that has ever been accorded to this column - he encloses tickets for the journey as a matter of course. Lord Beaverbrook regularly provided air tickets to Nice for his guests in the South of France. Indeed, in his forthcoming biography of Mr Michael Foot, Mr Mervyn Jones tells us that, when Mr and Mrs Foot stayed at the Danieli in Venice, Beaverbrook paid not only their air fares but their hotel bill as well.

What the argument about Mr Mellor and the air fares illustrates is a truth of general application: that in all sex-and-politics stories, a game is played which may be termed 'Hunt-the-Issue'. Thus the issue in Mr John Profumo's case was said to be, not that he had enjoyed a fling with Miss Christine Keeler or even shared her favours with a Russian spy, but that he had lied to the Commons about it. The issue, sometimes varied to the 'real issue', in Mr Yeo's case is said to be, not that he committed adultery simpliciter, but that as a consequence of his activities he fathered a child outside wedlock, and did so moreover at a time when the government of which he was a member was pointing to the social perils of single motherhood.

It is all humbug. In the 1970s Lord Lawson and his first wife went their separate ways, she with A J Ayer (who died in 1989, four years after she did), he with Mrs Therese Medawar, a researcher in the Commons library. Mrs Medawar gave birth to a boy. A few years later Lord Lawson moved into her small house in Wandsworth. In 1980 they married, his first marriage having been dissolved in the same year. Their second child, a girl, was born a year later.

In Lord Lawson's case the fathering of a child out of wedlock was held to be no bar to his continuation in office or, indeed, to his subsequent promotion to the Chancellorship. In Lord Parkinson's case, so Lady Thatcher informs us in her memoirs, his adultery with Miss Sara Keays did not constitute 'an insuperable objection to his becoming Foreign Secretary'. However, the then prime minister discovered through Miss Keays's father that she was pregnant. 'It was immediately obvious that I could not send Cecil to the Foreign Office with such a cloud hanging over him.'

She sent him to the Department of Trade and Industry instead. There he reposed until the party conference. On its last day Miss Keays gave an interview to the Times in which she said that he had promised to marry her. Lady Thatcher writes: 'It was clear that the story was not going to die down . . . we all knew that he would have to go.' In his own memoirs Lord Parkinson writes: 'I decided that I had become a liability to the government and that I should resign.'

It is perhaps natural that Lord Parkinson does not mention what was, and still is, held to be the 'real issue': that, as he had promised to marry Miss Keays, and failed to do so, he was not a man of his word, consequently unfit to be a minister. The cad had deserted his mistress and returned to his wife] But then, Lady Thatcher does not mention the supposedly real issue either. She clearly did not think he was unfit to be a minister. Four years later, having paid his debt to society - or anyway to the Conservative Party - he was restored to the government.

Interestingly enough, Mr Major makes the same suggestion about Mr Yeo's future. But he may no longer be an MP and hence incapable of being restored to any kind of office. The distinctive feature of his case is that his local party turned against him. Its leading members indicated that he should resign as a minister, while leaving his future as an MP undecided.

Some ponderous persons have written that the South Suffolk Conservatives exceeded their proper authority. This shows a certain lack of historical sense. Until this century a member who was made a minister had to resign his seat and resubmit himself to the electorate - a rule which could be reintroduced to the advantage of democracy. In any case, in a free country we are all entitled to our views about who is or is not fit to be a minister.

The Prime Minister, for his part, is equally entitled to reply that it is he who makes those decisions, not a constituency party, still less the press. Mr Major could have chosen to keep Mr Yeo, while acknowledging that the Suffolk Conservatives were within their rights to select another candidate for the next election. He did not choose to take this courageous course. Instead there was a lot of windy bluster to begin with, followed by a soggy collapse like that of a sinking souffle. Yet again, Mr Major has proved himself to be a weak prime minister.