17 MAY 1957, Page 6

Westminster Commentary

SHIP me somewhere east of Suez, and as quickly as pos- sible. One more reference to the subject in the House of Commons after this week and I will have an attack of the screaming heebie-jeebies on the spot, which will give the breach-of-privilege boys something to write home about. The latest instalment—two mortal days of it, if you please, not counting the scene on Monday—should last even the shade of de Lesseps an 'eon or two. And it isn't as if any- body had anything to say. The Eight against Thebes had created a considerable hullabaloney, but when the froth was blown away it was clear to the meanest intelligence (watch this space for his name), as it had been clear for some time to the more reflective, that the Suez group (of blessed memory) was to all intents and purposes in voluntary liquidation. First to see the crash coming was Mr. Julian Amery, a boyo on whom there are no flies, not even in the height of summer. One day he was sailing his pirate's sloop to and fro across the bows of the good ship Downing Street, uttering shrill cries of 'Throw .'em to the sharks, me hearties,' and the next he was clambering stealthily aboard the enemy's vessel in the dead of night, gripping between his teeth not a cutlass but a handy map of the dis- position of the other craft still flying the skull and crossbones. And all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

Next, Captain Waterhouse packed it in, an- nouncing that he would not seek re-election. Whether this was caused by disgust at the tempor- ising of his leaders or a sudden Buchmanesque discovery that he had caused a great deal more trouble than he was worth no man knows, and few will be inclined to dispute the question far into the night. But thereafter the bandwagon was well-nigh overturned by the rush to get aboard before the old man with the scythe arrived. Mr. Macmillan went to Bermuda and Sir Robert Grimston's anti-American motion went for a burton. Mr. Nabarro hid behind his moustache and made a noise like a carpet. Mr. Montgomery Hyde, practically unhinged by the excitement, flew to Dublin and came back with the piquant discovery that a document is genuine if there is a note saying so typed on the cover; opinions as to the value of his discovery may vary, but the eight were eight, and not nine. Mr. Hugh Fraser (I often wonder what would have happened if they had given him a flaming gunboat and told him to sail it through the Canal himself) blew hot, hotter, hottest; nay, very flames were seen issuing from his ears. When it came time to stand up and be counted, however, Mr. Fraser had a pressing appointment with his refrigerator.

As for Lord Salisbury, he may put down what motions he pleases; it is still difficult to believe that he ever existed, let alone that he was once a wise fellow, and which is more, an officer, and which is more, a householder, and which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any in Messina, and one that knows the Law, go to, and a rich fellow enough, go to, and a fellow that hath had losses, and one that }lath two gowns, and everything handsome about him. In short, Milord has been writ down an ass, and there is an end of it.

No, the gallant boatful (it is perhaps significant that they have made no allowance for a cox) can sit as Independent Conservatives till the cows come home; the fact is, the cows have gone away for good, and the only diehards who will go on whooping it up after this week are those who don't know enough to come in out of the rain. The most diligent search has failed to elicit any evidence that the nation, let alone the party, is simply itching to fall in behind Lord Hinching- brooke and Mr, Angus Maude and follow them to glory.

Well, and they didn't have anything to say. On Monday, in fact, they had so little to say that they spent most of their time in hushed tones, arrang- ing the debate. Oh, Mr. Maitland, with all the subtlety of a runaway steamroller, worked in a reference to Munich, but he is no man to set the blood racing.

But who, by now, is? It was Sir Victor Raikes's bright idea on Monday that the debate should last two days, and I can hardly have been the only man who was wishing by 6 o'clock on the first day that Sir Edward Boyle, or some other heavy object, would fall on Sir Victor from a great height, not to mention on the Right Hon- ourable Gentlemen who readily agreed with Sir Victor's suggestion.

All the ideas—good, bad and idiotic—that any- body has had on the subject of Suez had been canvassed to the point of nausea, and a good long way beyond. So when Mr. Gaitskell and Mr. Macmillan entered during Question Time, one noted with a hollow feeling, but without surprise, that the cheers which greeted each of them were the kind the House reserves for the occasions on which it does not propose to be serious.

Mind you, Mr. Gaitskell was serious enough, though seeing what usually happens when he tries to be funny, that should be a matter only for rejoicing. To a House which was much more crowded below the gangways than above, and which included a whiter and more drawn Sir Winston than I can remember ever having seen, the Leader of the Opposition made a brave show of breaking new ground (so, in another sense, did Lord Hinchingbrooke, the Independent Conserva- tive Member for South Dorset; squeezed out of his usual seat, he parked himself in the gangway, Where he was trodden on in a spirited fashion by Mr. Walter Elliot). Mr. Gaitskell was nervous,. restrained, quiet, to the point, heard in silence, sanctimonious and dull. Much talk of 'The Num- ber One Account' early in his speech gave hideous promise of an address pitched midway between the incomprehensible and the uninteresting; but the promise was happily unfulfilled, and having avoided (as he most unwisely did not avoid last time this subject was on the agenda) quoting the more obviously ben trovato bits of the Brom- berger book, he came safely home with an indict- ment of the Government which while it could not be called devastating by his best friends, yet could not be called quite ineffective by his worst enemy. True, his idea of a battle-cry is 'We refuse to adopt the slogan "My government right or Wrong,"' but Mr. Gaitskell's strength has never lain in his Thames-firing abilities, nor would he Pretend it does. A plodder, our Mr. Gaitskell, and those who immediately assume I am sneering are reminded that he has plodded his way to the leadership of the Labour Party, which is more than most men have done. But I do wish that, if only to please me, he would stop wagging his head from side to side like a member of the crowd at Wimbledon. Mr. Macmillan was not as bad as he sounded. He was, rightly enough, given a hard time of it, particularly during his not over-manly attempt to rest his own responsibilities upon a sick Sir Anthony. And when he said that Sir Anthony's policy had had 'complete and unanimous sup- port' of his Government, the cries of 'Boyle' (none of Nutting, the dead bury their dead around Westminster with almost indecent haste) seemed genuinely to surprise him.

But the flabby metaphors which raised jeers from the Opposition and yawns from his own side, together with the bored, offhand delivery, were designed with exquisite care. Their purpose was to lower the temperature and thus avoid any danger of his policy catching alight. It worked, too; admittedly Mr. McGovern followed immediately upon the Prime Minister, but that alone could not account for the speed with which the House emptied. You couldn't actually hear them saying, 'Anyone for tennis?' but the cut of their jib as they strolled out was that of men who were planning to forget the whole thing before the swing doors of the bar had stopped swinging.

And the seal was set upon the whole proceed- ings by the speech of Captain Waterhouse. When a long, brave day is coming to an end in bitter- ness and disillusionment, sympathy is in order;„ but Captain Waterhouse's speech was so silly, so futile, so nasty ('we ought to chase Nasser like a pest officer would chase a rat') and withal so empty of anything helpful, and indeed of anything at all but the spirit which moves a bad-tempered child to kick a table against which it has bumped • its knee, that I for one could work up no grain of it. And when Captain Waterhouse was fol- lowed on the Tory side by Sir Robert Grimston, it was clearly time for all good men to fold their tents—a course of action sensibly adopted long before by Lady Violet, who had been sitting up in the Ladies' Gallery, looking as cold as marble