12 AUGUST 1972, Page 2

Political Commentary

Off on the summer holidays

Hugh Macpherson

It is quite appropriate that this Parliament should finish with a hellish inferno of noise as workmen swarm round Palace Yard driving vast tubes into the ground in preparation for a new car park. The noise inside the Chamber simply petered out at the end of what has surely been one of the most punishing sessions Parliament has ever seen in times of peace. But what of the leaders as they depart for their summer hols?

As reported several times in recent weeks the Skipper is in excellent fettle physically. However as he burnishes the binnacle of Morning Cloud: or simply lies back in the gunwhale supplying a distinguished piece of ballast, there are a few little problems to ponder. For one thing the dock strike carries on although nobody seems very bothered by it all. Parliament dealt with the emergency regulations with more expedience than it did the question of Members travelling expenses, and the country seems to be quite happy about the crises and emergencies which come along regularly. But what about that moment — which is only recognised in retrospect — when the country stops blaming the trade unions, the students, the Opposition, the Reds, the British workman and starts to blame the Government or, worse, the Prime Minister?

Ulster continues on its murderous way although nobody blames the Government for that and the Opposition has been cooperative enough. There is just the niggling doubt that if the whole thing goes up in flames it might spread to the mainland of Britain. If that happened the small rump on the back benc'nes might do a lot of damage to the party's image and Ireland has broken governments before. The Skipper must be grateful that Mr Whitelaw has been so closely identified with the whole Irish question, as indeed has Lord Carrington. It is sink or swim together on that one.

One thought which must surely cross the Skipper's mind as he swigs the mariner's tot of cocoa is whether he should call a general election in the autumn. Naturally enough he knocked the idea firmly on the head when asked about it on television — Government elected on a programme for a Parliament and all that — but it is also true that timing has become a little difficult. The cycle has become disturbed as it has for every government that ever existed. The idea was quite clear even a year ago; to bring in all the unpleasant Bills, such as Housing Finance, Industrial Relations, Europe, and be rid of them in the first year or two. Then the options were open afterwards to have a quick burst of prosperity and an appeal to a grateful nation excited by the new opportunities in Europe to which they would have been converted. As the Skipper himself once said: " ... until the major aspects of the negotiations have been concluded the Government is inhibited from making a judgement and explaining it to the country."

But the country never quite saw it that way and is not much keener on the EEC than before the publicity campaigns. The same is true of Industrial Relations. This was a politically conceived Bill which has ' simply backfired. The one advantage in going to the country in October would be to play the Selsdon Man line and say the trade unions have reduced the country to a state of anarchy. The trouble is that the country is more sympathetic to the unions than was ever dreamed of in the Selsdon Park Hotel. And the Skipper, being a realist, has already found that it is impossible to run the country and confront the trade unions at the same time. What kind of militancy could be expected from the unions, and the Opposition, if an election were won on the issue of "let's bash the unions "?

But the country never quite saw it that ponders the possibility of an autumn election, the really major obstacle is the threat it would pose to his place in history as the Prime Minister who took Britain into Europe. Elections are not fought on one issue. What if the Opposition turned the electorate's mind to the question of European entry? They are divided of course but what about the strong little group on the Government back benches containing able men of the calibre of Sir Derek Walker-Smith and Mr Marten, not to mention one Mr Powell?

One nasty thought which might cross the Skipper's mind is the remote .possibility of being forced to go to the country by an unfortunate combination of events. The Germans have their elections early in December and the French in March 1973. Already the French have shown anxiety about events in Ulster and Herr Brandt has shown his teeth over UK regional policy by simply asking for information. A dreaded combination of events could be a firm commitment at the Labour conference in October to come out of Europe; continuing crises such as the dock strike which make it impossible to peg the pound at a fixed rate before the end of the year; Ulster in flames and a breakdown in co-operation with the TUC and CBI. There might be, in these circumstances, demands from the French and German governments to see the fullhearted co-operation of the British people before taking such an unstable partner into the EEC.

In these circumstances it would be easy to imagine that Mr Harold Wilson would don his khaki shorts and sandals to bask contentedly in the Scillies. This, however, would be far from the truth, for the one thing on which he would agree with the PM is in not wanting an autumn election. The October conference promises to be a fratricidal event even by Labour Party standards. An outright rejection of Market entry would split the party into three: those who want to go in at any price, those who will not at any price; and those like himself who want to go in at a certain price. Then there will be hard words about those who rebelled against the party line.

It is not simply the question of Mr Dick Taverne, who has placed himself in the absurd position of a St Sebastian complaining to the Almighty that the arrows are too sharp, but one of the nation watching on television while the conference upbraids solemly respected figures like Mr George Thomson or Mr ROY Jenkins.

Mr Wilson's hidden agreement with the PM goes beyond avoiding embarrassment over the EEC. He has had his owli experience of dealing with the trade unions and would much rather cope with them after they have been bloodied a bit in their encounters with the Tories. Even the dreaded Housing Bill will have its gains if allowed to sink in for a year or two. Middle class people will become angrier, and Labour councils in places like Scotland, who have tried to pluck LIP courage for years to raise rents, will haVe had their dirty work done by die Government. And what could be more splendid than a year or two of VAT. another devaluation, and some of the other teething difficulties of entering Europe? Above all else Mr Wilson would rather have an election when victory seems more likely. To lose an election in the autumn would be the end of his political career but if he holds on for a year or twd then the divisions over the Market might be forgotten, and indeed he might be seen as the great healer of party divisions. TP: only person to gain would be Par Wedgwood Benn, who at forty-seven around ten years younger than any maie` rival (except the defunct Mr Jenkins).