An attempt to divert the argument from the distractions of class war
he Financial Times last Saturday pub- lished a Prime Ministerial 'hate list' of prominent journalists. It is not clear whether this will become a regular feature, with the hated moving up and down like pop records (`And up three places from last week's number five — Charles Moore!'). The promulgation was the latest skirmish in the outbreak of class war triggered by Lord Rees-Mogg. His Lordship had complained, in terms more personal than political, about the calibre of Mr Major. Sir Norman Fowler, the Conservative Party chairman, had responded with a silver-plated bucket- load of ad hominem abuse of Lord Rees- Mogg. The 'list' sought to show that those ganging up on Mr Major were snooty hacks, almost all of whom either work or have worked for The Spectator; and who went to Eton or Cambridge (or, in a couple of peculiarly unfortunate cases, both). Lord Rees-Mogg's ninnyish column had got so far up the noses of the Tory leadership that only its last couple of sentences were still visible.
Despite being on the FT Hate Index, I must admit that in any argument between Sir Norman Fowler and Lord Rees-Mogg I am always on Sir Norman's side. This is partly because His Lordship seems a little deficient in judgment. I have no objection to him abusing Mr Major, but the terms in which he did so hardly advanced the cause. Sir Norman is a considerable politician who invites respect, whatever one might think of his devotion to Mr Major and his policies. He further demonstrated his skills last week in his broadside against Lord Rees- Mogg. Sir Norman never said that all criti- cism of Mr Major was class-based; howev- er, that is the helpful impression with which he has left the electorate. One is also sup- posed to conclude that snobbery is what we on the hate list are hated for. This alone distresses me, for I have always been anx- ious to be hated for the right reasons.
My sympathy with Sir Norman stems from a belief that we grammar-school boys must stick together. Indeed, in Sir Nor- man's and my case the code is especially strong, since we went to the same grammar school. The wide social sweep of our school (I have no reason to believe that Sir Nor- man was not, like me, there with everyone from the sons of stockbrokers to the off- spring of farm labourers) left us peculiarly unconscious of class. That was why it sur- prised me that he was so worked up about Mogg last week; class war is not a matter in which we Old Chelmsfordians routinely take much interest.
There is a subtler game. Sir Norman was cynically using Lord Rees-Mogg's attack to deflect criticism from the issues; because he knew that, in his own way, Lord Rees- Mogg was addressing issues. The most urgent of these, in the light of Denmark's approval of Maastricht and this week's Third Reading of the Maastricht Bill in the Commons, is our re-entry (or not) to the ERM. The Prime Minister is not exactly giving leadership on this question. As the importance of showing leadership was something forever being beaten in to Sir Norman and me at school, our sort want to know when it is corning. This particular criticism of Mr Major has nothing to do with how he holds his knife and fork, or what his father did for a living, or why (like Lord Carrington, for example) he did not go to university. It is about political skill and political judgment.
For the treaty obligations of Maastricht to be fulfilled, we must rejoin the ERM. Mr Richard Shepherd, the anti-Maastricht Tory MP, tirelessly pointed this out during the Bill's committee stage in the Commons. Noble lords (possibly, even, Lord Rees- Mogg, who was in favour of ERM member- ship up until the very moment that we actu- ally went in) will point it out again when the Bill moves upstairs in a few days' time. However, the cabinet that is urging ratifica- tion is also at sixes and sevens — or even tens and twelves — about this important consequence of the Treaty.
The official line on ERM is to say noth- ing. Mr Major dissembled when asked about it last week at Question Time by one of his backbenchers, Mr Toby Jessel. Far from ruling out a return to the economic policy that brought you Black Wednesday, Mr Major reiterated that we would not go back 'before important conditions have been met'. A condition he stated was that the German and British economies should converge more, something which (given what is about to happen to the German economy) may come about sooner than he thinks. The second condition, unstated in his answer to Mr Jessel, was that 'fault lines' should be removed. However, a meeting of European bankers last week snubbed Mr Lamont by saying that they could detect no fault lines worthy of removal. The thing about fault lines, as the San Franciscans will tell you, is that you cannot remove them; you just have to sit tight and wait for the next earthquake.
Some members of the Cabinet would like a commitment to re-entry to be expressed soon. Others would like it made clear that we will never go back, a policy that they feel, after recent election results, would go down well. Mr Kenneth Clarke, who wants Mr Lamont's job (for a start), has confused the issue by expressing both points of view. He told The Spectator recently that he favoured a return to managed exchange rates. He authoritatively let it be known last Sunday, however, that we would not rejoin the ERM in this parliament. Mr Lamont's friends reported him to be 'boiling' about Mr Clarke's role as chief economic spokesman. It must irk not so much that Mr Clarke wants Mr Lamont's job, but that he appears to be doing large parts of it at the same time as being Home Secretary.
`But can you imagine,' said a minister, `the discussion around the Cabinet table when Major tried to take us back in? Do you think with a majority of 18 he can risk doing it even if the Cabinet all wanted him to?' No: Mr Major cannot. We almost cer- tainly, therefore, are out of the ERM for the duration of this parliament, irrespective of our Maastricht obligations.
We can, perhaps, look forward to a Tory manifesto that includes provision for re- entry in the small print; so that if we do go back, Mr Major can say (as he says about Maastricht) that the people specifically voted for it. That does not, though, answer an obvious question. If we are not going back in before an election, why does Mr Major not say so? Such a statement would grossly offend all sorts of Europeans (who do not vote in our general elections) but would cheer up the public here (who do). To avoid any hostages to fortune, Mr Major could simply to revert to the time honoured formula of promising re-entry `when the time is ripe', if such uncertainty is not too electorally damaging. Yet he should, before doing that, look to his per- sonal survival. It will not escape him that the last person who made such a promise was quickly replaced by her inexperienced Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had (by coincidence) so ruthlessly egged her on 10 that policy.