D Notice Harold rides again
There can scarcely be a Member on either side of the House of Commons who would not enjoy seeing Sir Gerald Nabarro publicly deflated. Nevertheless, the Government's de- cision to set up a select committee of inquiry to look into Sir Gerald's alleged budget leak about a rise in the road fund licence fee does seem an extraordinarily heavy-handed way of achieving so trivial an objective. Sir Gerald Nabarro's allegations and accusations have ranged wildly and widely, and not always consistently; while some of them have been palpably inaccurate. Moreover, rumours of a forthcoming increase in the tax from £25 to £35 a year have been current, in one form or another, for a good many weeks. They were reported at length in the Conservative party's Weekly News- letter, sent to all Tory MPS, a week before Sir Gerald's outburst. They had been pub- lished prominently in the Sun (not normally considered part of the wicked Tory press) almost a week before that. On neither occa- sion did the majesty of government feel obliged to take any overt notice.
In the House of Commons the Chan- cellor has pointed out that genuine forms of the kind Sir Gerald claims to have seen . would in any event not be printed until within four weeks of budget day. What he did not add, but might have done, is that a chancellor does not prepare his budget until he has received the Treasury's February eco- nomic forecast. This Mr Jenkins has yet to see--and this year it is more than usually difficult to form, at this juncture, any firm idea of how much extra taxation (if any) it would be prudent to raise in April. An in- crease in the road fund licence fee to £35 —let alone £4.0 for larger cars—would raise over £150 million. It is inconceivable that any sane chancellor would make up his mind, at this stage, that he had to take so unpopu- lar a step. Perhaps the aptest comment came from Sir Gerald himself, when he welcomed the select committee 'so that it may be estab- lished whether there was "snow on the Russian boots."' As every schoolboy knows, there wasn't Why, then, the Government's determina- tion to take a sledgehammer to crack a nut — and a chestnut at that? The fact that, among his many allegations, Sir Gerald has claimed that 'Treasury officials' had told him they would advise the Chancellor to increase the licence fee is hardly an adequate explana- tion; although the Government will certainly be huffing and puffing a great deal about this particular aspect. Nor can a rumour of this kind be accused of damaging the coun- try in any way whatever—indeed, the large amount of unnecessary secrecy that sur- rounds the budget in this country is argu- ably far more damaging.
One explanation is that the Government's credibility has now evaporated so corn- pletely that it reckons that a solemn denial by a senior minister in the House of Com- mons no longer carries any weight—indeed, that it will be automatically disbelieved— and that a committee must be set up to prove that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not a liar. But this is not the whole story. Behind the Government's decision it is not difficult to see the characteristic hand of the Prime Minister, looking for some gim- mick to divert the attention of the public from the Post Office debacle and other similar Government performances, smelling conspiracies where none exist, and hoping that something discreditable will turn up. The Conservative party, the Tory printing firms, the motor lobby, the press, the City—who. knows what may not emerge in the end?
In short, the Harold Wilson of the Bank rate tribunal and the D Notices inquiry rides again. The only trouble is that on each of those occasions the investigation proved Mr Wilson's allegations to be totally un- founded, and on each occasion Mr Wilson refused to accept the umpire's verdict. In other words, so long as the inquiry- lasts, Sir Gerald has been guaranteed (even with- out the TV cameras) the personal publicity he craves. And at the end of the day, when the committee's decision is announced, he need do nothing more than follow the sorry precedent that has been set in their affairs by the Prime Minister himself.