Not such a rough House: or All Quiet on the Westminster Front
Ais there has been no end of being nice to Sir Edward Heath since the Sovereign awarded him the consolation prize of the
Garter last week, this column feels duty bound to provide a small corrective. Rather than drag up ancient history, and the fail- ures of the Grocer's three-and-half unla- mented years as Prime Minister, let us note the most recent expression of his views.
Sir Ted's interview with Mr David Frost last Sunday has been noticed only for his remark about Mrs Thatcher being a foot- note in history. He has been making a rep- utation on the quiet as a witty old soul in his declining years, and this was no doubt the latest manifestation of his legendary humour. If by some chance it was not, it was too palpably barking to require contra- diction. What has been overlooked, howev- er, was a view given with the full force of his sagacity as Father of the House of Com- mons. Discussing the importance of the choice of Speaker (whose election, to do the Grocer justice, he presided over with glacial aplomb the following day), Sir Ted hinted that the House of Commons was likely to he a more unruly place in the years ahead than it is now. Assuming he is not planning a spectacular guerrilla campaign of his own, he must believe that many of his 650 colleagues are planning trouble.
It is easy to see how one might come to this conclusion. Labour has lost for a fourth successive time. Its MPs are frustrated and angry. The Government's overall majority of 21 is comparatively small: one-fifth the size of last time, one-seventh the size of the time before that. This will mean many close votes, many late nights, and great stresses on whips and whipped alike. Small bands of dissenters, irrelevant in the last Parliament, will now assume greater significance.
Hardly had Speaker Boothroyd been dragged to the Chair on Monday afternoon than the hacks in the Lobby were speculat- ing about whether 11 MPs (the number needed, in theory, to overturn the Govern- ment's majority) would be found to oppose the Bill to ratify the Maastricht Treaty. Recalling the Speaker's pledge to stand up for minorities, one might expect her to be particularly helpful in calling embarrassing amendments to the Bill, on referenda and the like, by such small groups. Mr Speaker Brooke, or any other Government Whips' Office approved candidate, would not per- haps have been so likely to help. We may now see more Private Notice Questions in the Commons. These are the means by which the Speaker allows an MP to ask a specific (usually embarrassing) question to a minister, who may have to be brought to the House at some inconve- nience especially to answer it. There may also be more debates allowed under Stand- ing Order 20. This device allows the Speak- er to grant a request by an MP for the nor- mal business of the House to be overturned in favour of a debate on an urgent (and usually embarrassing) topic. All this cre- ation of 'trouble' for the Executive depends on the willingness of the Speaker to indulge MPs. In recent years, perhaps because of the overwhelming mandate the Tories had from the country, Speakers were not quick to grant cavilling PNQs or SO 20 debates. Now the Tories have an underwhelming mandate, and the Backbencher's Friend is in the Chair, that may be about to change.
There are, though, even more telling points against Sir Ted's mischievous con- tention. First, the House will need specific issues about which to become upset. MPs have no great expectation of these. The mood at Westminster on the day of the Speaker's election was that this was a moment to be savoured, for it represented the last excitement the House would see this side of the next election. Perhaps attempts to legislate for the Citizen's Char- ter will have Labour MPs swinging the Mace in indignation at the prospect of Nalgo workers having to wear name badges. However, the programme the Gov- ernment outlined in the manifesto seems to have been designed not to frighten the other side's horses too much. There is no poll tax here. And, unless Labour drops its support for Tory economic policy in the shape of adherence to the Exchange Rate Mechanism, the really damaging issue of the moment — the recession —can hardly cause much legitimate fractitiousness Second, even if something does emerge to excite Labour passions — perhaps Mr Lamont's long-overdue public spending cuts might do the trick — there is no guar- antee that Labour MPs will not still he too busy fighting among themselves to take as much notice as they should of such splen- did provocations. Although Labour has moved with commendable speed to find a new leader, the absurdities of the system under which it is doing so will hardly bestow on that leader (probably Mr John Smith) the mantle of legitimacy. The best- equipped men to lead Labour out of its dark night, Messrs Blair and Brown, are not even standing. Perhaps they are cun- ning enough to know that the man whose economic programme lost Labour last month's election will not survive too long once in charge of the party. Maybe they think their day will come, under a more respectable party electoral system, sooner than is generally reckoned. Whatever the truth of the matter, Labour's focus in the next 18 months or so will very much not be on the House of Commons.
Trouble will, though, come from the Government's own side. Miss Boothroyd's election involved 70 Tory MPs telling their Whips to chuck it, a hopeful sign that not all integrity is lost. Yet this Tory party does not look especially rebellious. It was touch- ing to see docile new boys wandering the corridors of Westminster on Monday, hunt- ing for a locker to call their own, trying not to look impressed when the titans of their party strolled past them, and attempting to fix up dining clubs where they can bore each other once a month until they all find more important things, or people, to do. Most of them are so grateful for the chance to become publicly funded nonentities that they will be rocking no boats for years. Only a few are clever enough to realise that, even with so well-disposed a Speaker, their power as private members will be non-existent. Almost all of the cream are sufficiently clever to behave well enough to grab office within six or seven years; only then will the rest start turning nasty.
The Maastricht ratification will be the next chance the Oppositiod, official and unofficial, has to bloody the Government's nose. If the Tories opposed to ratification can agree with the Opposition parties a form of words for an amendment — say on some form of what the Trades Unions innocently call 'a reference hack' — they would seriously disturb the leadership's repose. That, though, seems unlikely. The prospect of drifting off into four years of somnolence, spiced up by only the occa- sional burst of misbehaviour or demonstra- tion of independence, would appear to be the best we can hope for. One hates to dif- fer with a Knight of the Garter, but perhaps Sir Ted is as right on the rough House prophecy as he has been on so much else.