Towards a Minority Government
By ALAN WATKINS
Mucti of the talk in the lobbies on Tuesday was concerned not with the contents of the Queen's Speech but with the prospects in the Hull North by-election. Labour, it was whispered, was going to lose the seat. To demonstrate this, a piece of paper, setting out the average vote for each party's candidate in this year's Hull local elec- tions, was thrust before my eyes. (For those who are interested, the figures are Labour 1,122, Con- servative 1,791 and Liberal 1,125.) Oddly enough, the speculation about a Labour defeat came from the Government side rather than from the Oppo- sition. Equally oddly, the possibility of a Con- servative win at Hull was accepted with a quite remarkable degree of fortitude and equanimity by Labour MPs. On the face of it, surely, this is a puzzling reaction which deserves to be investi- gated more fully. And part of the solution may be found in two of Tuesday's main speeches—those of Mr. Harold Wilson and Mr. Jo Grimond.
Mr. Wilson, to be sure, was not at his best. In the flat heartlands of his speech at least one MP was to be observed sound asleep. (And if there is any nonsense about this disclosure being a breach of privilege I shall not hesitate to name the MP concerned.) For much of the time, indeed, Mr. Wilson spoke as if he were back again at his beloved Board of Trade. And yet, running through his speech, there was a theme of the utmost political significance. On at least three occasions he returned to this theme. It was that in a year's time Labour would have completed the major part of its programme. Take this in con- junction with Mr. Wilson's oft-repeated remark about being elected 'to do a job of work'—and take it also in conjunction with Mr. James Callaghan's similar observations at Erith this week--and we have the date of the election. Mr. Wilson has as good as told us. The date is October 1966. All Mr. Wilson's thinking, all his planning, is directed towards an appeal to the country at
that time. And it will take a very exceptional set of circumstances indeed to deflect him.
But might, hp not be deflected by a change in the parliamentary situation? What if he loses his absolute majority? Suppose a Government defeat at Hull North is followed by a defeat at another by-election? Mr. Wilson, it is frequently asserted, cannot talk away the facts of arithmetic: he may be a clever chap, but he cannot as yet add two and two and make five. But this, in a sense, is exactly what he can do, with the assistance of Mr. Grimond. Those who heard Mr. Grimond on Tuesday (for before he spoke a surprisingly large number disappeared from the galleries and the chamber) were left in no doubt as to his general attitude towards Mr. Wilson's Administration. He was in favour of it. The Government, he said, was no longer Socialist : it had dropped steel nationalisation. And for most of the measures foreshadowed in the Queen's Speech he expressed a guarded approval.
Now this, it may be said, is all very convenient and pleasant for Mr. Wilson, provided he retains an absolute majority, however tiny. Yet once the majority disappears the constitutional situation changes, and the Government cannot remain in office unless it possesses, not the general and qualified approval which Mr. Grimond bestowed on Tuesday, but a pledge of unequivocal Liberal support. Or so the argument runs. It is an argument which Mr. Grimond himself ad- vanced throughout the summer and at his party assembly. Unless a Lib-Lab arrangement was arrived at, he argued, an occasion would inevit- ably arise when the Liberals would find them- selves voting with the Conservatives and defeat- ing the Government. The Government would then, he assumed, have to go to the country.
It is this last assumption which is fallacious: in- deed it may conveniently be labelled the Grimond Fallacy. For there is no constitutional reason what- soever why a minority government should need to have a pledge of unequivocal support from a third party. All that is necessary is for the third party to be broadly in sympathy with the aims of the government party. And this the Liberals have now declared themselves to be. Mr. Grimond, in short, has assumed too readily that he has the power to bring down a minority Labour government. He could accomplish this only if his party were pre- pared to follow one or more of these courses of action: First, the Liberals could simply decide to oppose everything the Government tried to do; this, in fact if not in name, would be to ally them- selves with the Conservative party. Secondly. they could support an Opposition motion of censure on the Government, or vote with the Opposition against a Government motion of confidence in it- self. Or, thirdly, they could refuse the Govern- ment supply.
But at no time has Mr. Grimond threatened to do any of these things. The type of situation he envisages is quite different. The only example he has given so far is of a 'Home Office' case : in this kind of situation, he has said, the Liberals might well find themselves voting with the Conservatives and against a minority Labour government. Let us suppose, in order to test Mr. Grimond's theory, that Sir Frank Soskice makes some monumental blunder at the Home Office—by and large, a fairly safe supposition to make. We have, then, another Carmen Bryan or Soblen or Enahoro case, and the Liberals join with the Conservatives to defeat the Government. Is this a resignation matter? Home Office issues are rarely related to broad government policy, and there is no very compelling reason why a government should resign after a defeat on one of them.
In the last resort, however, this is a question for the Government—or, speaking more realistically, for the Prime Minister—to answer. The answer depends on a number of considerations : on how important the Prime Minister considers it to be for the Government to get its way; on the suit- ability, as an election issue, of the subject of the parliamentary defeat; not least, on the prospects of winning the election. The power of dissolution belongs to the Prime Minister acting through the Queen. Provided he gets supply, is not defeated on a vote of confidence and is not obstructed in Par- liament, there is no reason why he should not con- tinue at the head of a government which does not command an absolute majority. After all, we have had plenty of minority governments before —most recently in 1885-86, 1886, 1886-92, 1910- 15, 1924 and 1929-31. The Liberals may soon find themselves occupying the same position as the Irish party or the early Labour party. For all the indications at present are that Mr. Wilson would try to soldier on as leader of a minority government. Mr. Grimond's last chance to prevent him doing so came on Tuesday. He did not take this chance. Mr. Grimond could have attacked the Queen's Speech. He could have said --he has said it before—that the Government was doing nothing to solve the country's basic econo- mic problem. He could have shaken his head sor-
rowfully and regretted that he would have to take his MPs into the division lobbies against various government proposals. An approach of this kind would not have committed the Liberal party to opposition to the Government : it would, how- ever, have left the door open to opposition, if the need arose. But Mr. Grimond has now declared himself. By omitting steel nationalisation from the
Queen's Speech, Mr. Wilson has bought Liberal support. He has not even had to promise electoral reform. Despite the noises on the left, one cannot help feeling that he has bought this support at a bargain price.