21 AUGUST 1982, Page 16

The press


Paul Johnson

hortly before we went on the air for last L./ Sunday's live Face the Press pro- gramme, James Prior, the Northern Ireland Secretary, remarked that whereas a Minister's officials went to enormous trou- ble to make sure he used exactly the right expressions in anything he wrote, there was nothing they could do to protect him against verbal slips in a TV broadcast or in- deed any unpremeditated use of the spoken word. Too true, and sometimes a fatal point in Irish affairs, where words can kill. I reminded him that Lord Rosebery, on almost the first day he became Prime Minster, got into a fearful row with the Irish by an off-the-cuff observation in the House of Lords that Britain was 'the predominant partner'. He complained afterwards to Campbell-Bannerman that he couldn't understand the shemozzle: after all, his remark was true. C-132, in telling the Story, concluded with relish that 'it showed how little political and parliamentary education Rosebery has had if he thought it a sufficient defence of any public utterance that it was true'.

In his interview with us, Prior deftly step- ped his way through the various rocks and whirlpools of Irish susceptibilities. But of course it was necessary we should touch on other matters too, notably the state of the economy, since Prior was the leader of the `wets', albeit now a reformed one. As a

matter of fact Prior, though preoccupied with Irish affairs, did make a speech in Bir- mingham, as recently as 2 July, on the economy: the text was carefully considered, written out in full, and released by Conser- vative Central Office. As I was going to question Prior, I read it with some attention and noted its bland, balanced and thoroughly orthodox tone and content. Sir Geoffrey Howe, nay Mrs Thatcher herself, could not have asked for a more loyal and unexceptionable statement of government policy. And, that being so, the speech (50 far as I know) went virtually unreported.

When he answered our economic ques- tions on Sunday Prior made more or less exactly the same points as in his written speech. In particular, he stressed that the idea of our reflating our way out of recess- ion and unemployment was unworkable. He seemed, in fact, so far from his views of, say, eighteen months ago that I remarked he was beginning to talk very like a convert to Thatcherism. However, he used two Rosebery-style expressions. He said that present unemployment was 'intolerable'. And, far more important, he added later that Mrs Thatcher could 'get rid of' him If she wished. Now both statements are un- doubtedly true, especially the latter. But as `C-B' said, for a politician truth is no defence. In the dead season (and especially on a Sunday), when most sensible politi- cians are on the grouse moors, from which indeed Prior had emerged to make this broadcast, the combination of those two expressions — 'intolerable' and 'get rid of'

was quite enough fuel to get Flee Street's wheezy engine going.

`Prior Blasts Dole Misery,' trumpeted the Sun next morning: 'He Risks Sacking by `Maggie.' His reference to unemployment being 'intolerable' was an 'outburst', in which he 'broke a year's silence on the Government's record' to strike out 'as the undisputed leader of the moderate Toll "wets" '. 'Prior Slams Maggie Over Jobless' was the Mirror's headline: "She Can Always Sack Me" He Says.' In- terestingly enough, the story below did con' elude with the remark in which prior repudiated the old 'wet' solution: for WI' tain at this stage to think there is some easy answer by simply reflating our way out of our own problems is simply not possible But that was not reflected in the thrust .of• the story, which had the unfortunate Prior `ready to go to the back benches last night to criticise the government on unemploy- ment' . Other papers gave it the same slant. The Daily Mail headline, on the front page, was `Maggie Can Fire Me Says. Prior'. 'Cabinet Minister James Prior', its story ran, 'put his head on the Thatcher chopping block yesterday' in what it called `the row over the government's economic strategy'. It predicted that `Mr Prior's intervention sug- gests a ferocious Cabinet fight ahead over What is going to happen on jobs, pay and prices up to the next election'. The Daily Express was even more exercised. `In- tolerable!' it roared: `Prior Slams Maggie Over Jobless and Says "She Can Always Sack Me" '. Prior, said it story, had `renewed his attack on Mrs Thatcher's economic policies' after `a year's absence from the public fray on the economy' and so `reopened all the old wounds'. Its ac- companying editorial was distinctly narky. The notion of Prior being sacked was `not a bad idea'. Better, however, if Prior resign- ed: `Indeed he SHOULD resign if he means what he says.' The paper thought it `pretty feeble' on Prior's part to be `bleating out of school when the headmistress is away on holiday'.

It was not just the populars who got ex- cited either. The Daily Telegraph headline was `Prior Condemns "Intolerable" Jobless Levels' and it reported he `strongly expressed disagreement with some of the Prime Minister's policies'. `Prior Echoes CBI Plea for Growth' was The Times angle, though the story below the headline was rather more sober and noncommittal. The Guardian story, headed `Prior Leads Pressure for Economic Boost', suggested that he had deliberately put himself at the head of an army of resurrected `wets'. As a result `the Prime Minister seems likely to face increasing pressure from her Cabinet colleagues' for `the introduction of measures to stimulate the economy'. It add- ed: `Speculation is increasing among ministers about the possibility of a big economic package in the autumn.' In fact Prior had specifically rejected the idea of a big government reflationary boost.

What Mrs Thatcher made of it all, by the time the Fleet Street headlines were transmogrified by the Gazette de Lausanne and Journal de Geneve, I hate to think. Cabinet ministers do not normally trouble to read each other's press releases, let alone the full text of their speeches and inter- views. Like the rest of us, their eyes tend to alight on the big print at the breakfast table. Thus is history made. I don't think Prior had the slightest desire to start an economic row or anything else, least of all to put his head on Mrs Thatcher's chopping- block. But politicians propose; newspapers dispose. Ah well, it is the silly season.