Two parties are more fun than one

James Fenton
Sunday 08 May 1994 23:02

I CAN understand why he says it, but it seems unwise of John Smith to continue insisting that it will not do for the Tories to change their party leader yet again in mid- term without going to the nation, as if this were somehow unconstitutional.

It is not unconstitutional, so why pretend that it is? Why get fixated on an obviously incorrect point?

Of course, Mr Smith must always be seen to be ready to face the nation in a general election, as no doubt he is. For my part, I think this business of facing the nation is fraught with danger. Events of the past week have brought my nightmare scenario closer than ever. Here is how it stands in its revised form.

John Major becomes fed up with people like John Carlisle. One morning he gets out of bed thinking: why should I put up with this any longer? They are only going on at me because they are afraid of the next election. Very well, I will give them a taste of what they least want. I will call an election now.

And so, without a word to anyone, he pops off to see the Queen. The announcement is made. The Tories are stunned. The opposition parties rub their hands with glee. The fight begins.

Throughout the short campaign, the opinion polls continue to reflect the amazing unpopularity of both the Government and the Prime Minister. But a catchphrase keeps cropping up in conversations, unnoticed at the time but later remembered by all the commentators.

The catchphrase is: 'Still, I must say, you have to hand it to him . . .' Something about Mr Major and his silly little soap box, something about his doggedness, something about the suicidal course he has taken; 'impresses' would be the wrong word, but something at least intrigues and amuses people.

The man is, after all, in the unique position of running for Prime Minister without the support of his party. Everyone knows that as soon as the results come there will be blood all over the carpet.

But then the results do come, and it turns out Mr Major has won. Quelle horreur] Individuals (imagining they were acting as individuals) had decided that, while they still detested the Tories and all they had done, still there should be someone, somewhere, who gave Mr Major the credit for appealing to the people over the heads of his horrible party. But these individuals turn out to have been numerous enough to form a class, and that class returns the Prime Minister to power.

So the ratchet turns. And so we come closer to that state of permanent one-party government. Mr Major and half his Cabinet have hitherto not known what it was like to be in opposition, as Sir John Nott was pointing out yesterday. But in this new situation, this nightmare scenario, none of the Labour front bench will have known what it was like to be in government.

Mr Smith's successor (for there will indeed have been blood all over the carpet, but of a different blood group, as it happens) will be permanently vulnerable to the charge of utter inexperience. The Labour Party will become a folk memory, like the Liberals.

We will begin to see a cultural shift in the electorate. People will get used to voting for the party they hate. It will become a part of the received function of government to be detestable, and people will forget that there was ever an option to be exercised. Thus a new culture will be established.

What I mean by a culture is a trend in social behaviour which turns out to be stronger than any overt rules or precedents. The famous, admirable South Sea Islanders - who were taught the rules and art of football, embraced it lovingly but tended to play very long games because they always played until the two sides had scored an even number of goals - had a culture that was stronger and lovelier than that of the unlovely, imported game.

Culture determines whether or not, given the rules of our democracy, there has ever to be a change of ruling party. If the Conservatives were elected again next time, there is nothing in the rule book or in the culture that allows them to say: OK, we won, but we feel it only fair to let Labour have a go this time. Such even-handedness must issue from the culture of the electorate.

Sir John Nott was arguing in the Sunday Telegraph (as only a retired politician can) that a period in opposition would be good for the Tory Party, that defeated parties get a chance to think and renew their philosophies, that ministers out of office get a chance to meet up again with 'real people'.

Of course, a period out of office would be bad for the country, but the good it would do the Tory Party takes precedence over the temporary set- back for the nation.

So Sir John Nott envisaged a period of opposition which avoided the Tories taking responsibility for 1996, the year of the Conference of the European Union. Mr Smith or Paddy Ashdown could take the blame for any loss of sovereignty associated with that. But meanwhile the Tories would have their own new leader, who would bring back the faithful to the spirit of Margaret Thatcher's Bruges speech. Reunited thus, the party would return with a massive majority.

Highly ingenious] The only thing missing from the plan was the explanation of how the Tories would go to the nation and guarantee to lose the election.

What was on display in Sir John Nott's thinking was a modified form of one-party- ism. A period in opposition was discounted as a form of time out, a refresher for the single ruling party.

Not for a moment was it considered that a period without the Tories might be refreshing for the country itself, that in order for the country to have a rethink it was better to get rid of the Tories for a while. No.

Viewed in this way, the opposition parties exist really as a convenience for the Tories: they occasionally get to babysit the country while the single party goes off for a brainstorming session in some country-house hotel.

This kind of talk is not new. Lord Wilson had a fantasy in which Labour had become 'the natural party of government'. Hubristic talk about going on and on and on was one of those tell-tale signs (such as looking for hairs on the palms of her hands) that told even her supporters that Mrs Thatcher's time was up.

But it is not part of our political culture for a minister to behave in any other way than as if things were indeed going to go on and on and on. This did not matter so much in the days when it was clear that there were two parties composed of people with one- party minds, and an electorate clearly determined to thwart one or the other.

My ideal scenario is that Labour crushes the Tories, who proceed to destroy themselves utterly, irreversibly and with maximum pain and embarrassment. This implies that the Liberals must then take the Tory place.

Let it happen] I am not a monopolist. Let's - even with the Liberals - get back to a two-party system.

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