11 JANUARY 1992, Page 8


Matthew Parris hears the voice of

the Tory backbenches predicting disaster, but being far from worried about it

'TURMOIL'?' said my backbench friend. 'I don't know about turmoil. It's more like, you know, when a rabbit's looking at the headlights. It's an odd sensation for us Tories. After all these years I think we're looking at the last 16 weeks of a Conserva- tive government. But of course I don't know because, you see, everyone's forgot- ten how that feels.

'At least there's one dreadful possibility we can exclude. Another big Tory victory. Another five years in the wilderness for backbench krill like me. No hope of that, thank God.' He paused '... Might squeak in, though. by the skin of our teeth, a dozen seats or so. Not a had outcome. I'd still be an MP and ten young ministers wouldn't. PM scrapes the barrel. All hands on deck. Chance of a job for me.

'Or just as much fun would be a decisive knockout — us knocked out, naturally. Well, we do deserve it, for God's sake! Working Labour majority. Twenty ex-min- isters lose their seats. Leader of the Oppo- sition, John Major. brings me on to the front benches. Five years' licensed yobbery. Something to look forward to, you know, harpooning Labour ministers. We've got all their old quotes to throw at them as the nation lurches into crisis ...

'Besides, as the papers keep saying, nobody can remember what a Labour gov- ernment was like anymore. That "winter of discontent" was our great weapon. A few more grisly years with Kinnock at the helm would be like an inoculation for the elec- torate, before another ten-year holiday with us. I mean, what real harm can Kin- nock do, what with us being in the ERM and everything? I know we like to scare the voters with all that stuff about a post-elec- tion coup by the hard Left, but the real problem with Kinnock will be drift, not rev- olution. Problems will pile up for a few years, then, after a suitable pause, back come the Tories. And I'll be a minister, with any luck ...'

His face darkened. 'Then there's the nightmare scenario. We don't lose. Hung parliament. Everybody at sixes and sevens. Months hanging around, another election, with more humiliation to come. No sum-

mer hots.' He smiled, concerned that I was taking him seriously. 'Don't worry. It can all change. It's really just the economy. Economic gloom equals opinion poll gloom. Then out come all the hobby-horses for a canter...

'Brugeists: "snigger-snigger" and "I told you so" and "I blame the ERM" — "Oh, if we weren't in the Common Market we could just lower interest rates and devalue, like Harold Wilson..." Oops!

'My constituency chairman (poking me in the chest): "Tell that Major chappic to go for Kinnock's throat!" — poke-poke — as if I were some sort of dog-handler.

'And the funny thing is, you know, that he — my chairman — is supposed to repre- sent the grass-roots. But are the activists the grass-roots? If I talk to the sort of uncommitted constituents who don't belong to the party but might vote for us, they give you the opposite view: "The trou- ble with you lot," they say, "is that you're always trying to pull the other parties down. Now if you behaved more like your'

leader, that John Major, more like a gentleman, you'd be more popular."

`Do you know, I actually spoke to a Labour voter the other day who said she wished John Major was leader of the Labour Party instead of Neil Kinnock, then she could have everything she wanted in one party!

'And then you've got those people on the Daily Telegraph and The Spectator making trouble. The interesting thing is, you know, they're the very types who weren't wild about Mrs Thatcher when she first became leader, what with her being a woman and a grammar-school girl and all that sort of thing. It was only when they realised she wasn't seriously going to interfere with their pleasures and might make the nation safe for people in brogue shoes that they went over on to her side. They don't like this classless thing, you know, though they won't quite come Out and say it.

'And you can guess what the Thatcher groupies say: qte would have known what to do. They don't say tt:/uti, mind. They just say she would have known what. "It isn't right, what you did to her,- my old ladies keep telling me, "you're paying for it now." Oh yes, everyone has his theory. I could bore you with mine. I could tell you that John's problem is he's reading the newspa- pers. Margaret never read them, you know. And then he starts asking us — us, dammit, the government backbenchers — for our opinions. Bloody hell, it's unnerving when the PM starts doing that. She wouldn't have. She couldn't remember our names...

'But there I go, you see, giving you my opinion. Talk to a hundred backbench Tory rabbits and you'll hear a hundred more, as the headlights bear down. Truth is, if the economy's wrong a lot of colleagues are going to lose their seats, and they know it. They know it now dammit! They're getting their explanations in early.

'None of this stuff in the papers — "heading for majority of six, twelve, twen- ty", whatever — is of much interest to them. Six doesn't include them. Fifty wouldn't include them. How do you think you'd feel if you were in a sinking balloon and the crew started saying, "Don't worry, no problem, we'll have to lose a few men — him" (pointing at you) "and him, and him" and then it's up, up and away. Cheers.

'What chance has Tony Faye11 got, in Stockport? Let's be honest: none. So why not go out in a blaze of glory, "my coun- try", "Euro-betrayal" and all that? He'll be able to show his grandchildren the head- lines. Why creep around Stockport for your last weeks as an MP apologising for your

mates in government when in a few months they aren't going to be your mates any

more? All that whips' stuff about loyalty sounds a bit thin when you're walking the plank. Anyway, Richard Ryder smiles with- out opening his mouth, have you noticed?

'Or take these colleagues of mine bang- ing on about the economic problems.

Nobody's ever going to make them minis- ters and they know it. Coolly considered, most of them are under no electoral threat but they've maybe taken fright. Safest, they think, to be local heroes. Hence all that stuff about "the real economy out there", which of course they hardly need tell Major about. Major knew it before they did. Their outbursts may have won them a hundred extra votes each and lost the Government tens of thousands.

'Individual self-preservation doesn't always stop a rout: it can precipitate it. You

need more. I wouldn't necessarily call it ideals, but . . .' And here he stopped, to develop his thoughts.

'Put it this way. The party doesn't feel very good about itself.

'Don't get me wrong: everybody accepts it wasn't Major's fault — about her, I mean. Most of us think he's shaping up

well. Everything he's done he's done well. We underestimated him. None of us actu-

ally wants to lose a good PM, especially as Who knows what John would be like as Leader of the Opposition — it's not the same skill as chairing a Cabinet. And nobody's got the stomach for another lead- ership crisis, except Hese!tine, who'd lose it anyway to Ken Clarke ...

'No. John's clean. Hell, we're all clean. She had to go. Somebody had to push her. But still, it wasn't — well, right, somehow, was it? I mean, historically. After what she'd done for us, I mean. You know, I have this feeling, it's hard to explain . . . that . . . that if something . . . shameful . . . has been done, then things aren't right, aren't OK again, until somebody has suf- fered properly for it. Maybe we should have sacrificed a goat or something, ha, ha.

'It was too easy. Off she goes. Switch out the light, rearrange the scenery, curtain up — hey presto — brand-new leader. Sweep on to another election victory. Bravo! But where's the sacrifice? Maybe one good bloody nose for us all this spring might — well, pay for what we did?

'After all, a Labour victory wouldn't destroy the country any more. And our own so-called vision is — well, a bit thin, isn't it! "Good management" and all that. If you ask me, we're running a bit light on inner purpose or whatever, and our big enemy, socialism, has gone, and — well, the way we got rid of her sort of took the shine off it all ... What do you think?'

I didn't think. But as the conversation had taken an atavistic turn, I asked about Labour. 'On your reasoning,' I countered, 'surely Kinnock equally deserves punish- ment from the tribal gods, for his slaughter of his own beliefs?'

'Yes. That's why Labour want to lose, too, almost as much as we do. But they're running out of opportunities to cock it up. I mean, everybody knows Kinnock's capable of falling flat on his face and his mates ache to see it, but he's only got a month or two left to come a spectacular cropper and the Walworth Road spivs keep snatching away the banana skins before he can reach them. All around him, Kinnock's windows of cock-up opportunity are closing and soon we'll be into February and he's still walking on two legs. It's beginning to look desperate. Have another drink.'

'Thanks, I will. So it's Kinnock for PM then? Wearing my ex-Tory MP hat, I wouldn't want to hear this ...'

'Oh you would!' My friend looked intensely at me. 'You would. Don't you see?

'1992 could be Labour's last chance — I mean, we make a complete pig's ear of everything, Labour unveil a shiny new range of designer-policies, and still they lose . . . They might as well give up and go home, mightn't they? Well, they will, you know, some of them. Others will start tak- ing tea with decent Mr Ashdown and talk- ing about proportional representation.

'And he'll tell them what they know already. He'll tell them that it isn't the poli- cies that are Labour's problem, now. It's the logo — "Labour" — and all the trade- union and working-class and Daily Mirror Andy Capp crap that goes with it. You know how much we Tories rely on that image, Matthew.

'Imagine: Tory victory in 1992. Her Majesty's Principal Opposition tested to destruction. Do you really think that by the end of the decade there would be an old- fashioned Labour Party? No. And in its place? How about a small socialist party, sitting with Plaid Cymru, and a big group- ing called the "New Democrats" — Smith, Blair, Ashdown, Brown, Charles Kennedy, those sanctimonious blonde Welsh women who look like air-hostesses and are called Ann something-or-other? A real centre party with middle-class accents, experience, talent and a human face? Let's face it, it's what this country's been waiting for since the war. It would leave us alongside Plaid and the socialists.

'The voters loathe us. But they're stuck with us. Stuck for want of anything better — just the occasional spell with Labour, to keep us on our toes. Perfect arrangement, really. ... But they don't like us, Matthew: I wonder if you've any idea how much they don't like us?

'That's why we need Labour. And Labour need to live. And to live Labour needs to win. And we don't. We don't deserve to. Are we so greedy, so short- sighted that we can't just sit out this next dance?

'Have another drink.'

Matthew Parris is political Aket,liwriter of the Times.

Simon Heifer will resume his column next month.

'One of' our reolars -- drank like a fish.'