20 DECEMBER 1975, Page 6

Political commentary

Mr Varley, this is your life

Patrick Cosgrave

Nothing has become Mr Eric Varley so ill as his failure to leave office. He has always seemed, to those who know him, a decent and respectable man, drab to be sure, in dress as in manner, but responsible, honourable, and moderately intelligent. He is a very special type of Labour MP, neither of the trade union group of hatchetmen and placemen, nor flashy enough to qualify for inclusion in the Manifesto Group collection of butterflies who still flutter around the tattered banner of Mr Roy Jenkins. He is comfortingly old-fashioned: Mrs Varley is rarely seen in London, for her wifely job is tending the home fire of Chesterfield. He prefers beer to spirits, and spirits to wines. When he told colleagues and journalists that he would resign rather than yield to the demands of Chrysler's hard man from Detroit; that he would not allow himself to be over-ridden by a political gadfly like Mr Harold Lever; that he had denounced the Prime Minister to his face for trying to slide Mr Lever into negotiations with Chrysler; that up with all the things that were going on which veered from the path of straight dealing and financial rectitude laid down by the Chancellor when the present anti-inflation programme was launched he would not put — why, then, colleagues and journalists believed him. The more fools they. But the colleagues at least had their revenge when he rose in the House of Commons to defend a programme he had already told them he did not believe in. Derision in Parliament is frequent, but it is rarely genuine. This occasion was an exception.

Prom the last decade of British politics one could readily cull a fairly long list of resignations that ought to have been. Mrs Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph should have resigned when Mr Heath introduced a statutory incomes policy. Mr Sam Silkin should have resigned when the Labour government decided to pardon councillors from Clay Cross who had broken the law. Mr Heath should have resigned far more quickly than he did after the first election of 1974, for he had suffered at least a heavy moral defeat. Mr Peter Walker should have resigned when energy was taken away from his giant industry department and given to Lord Carrington, for this suggested a loss of confidence on the part of the Prime Minister in the strategy to which he and Mr Walker had . committed themselves. Mr Foot — and others — should have resigned when the present Prime Minister went back on his repeated undertaking not to introduce a statutory incomes policy. But in every one of these cases there is a certain amount of light and shade.

Take the most notorious example. Mr Silkin, the Attorney-General, has been pursued through the coloumns of the Times by Mr Bernard Levin because he remained a member of the Government after it had done something —retrospective legislating in favour of the Clay Cross councillors — which he had said in advance would be morally wrong, and contrary to the whole spirit of English law to the defence of which (the Attorney-General being responsible to Parliament, not the Cabinet) he was pledged. But Mr Silkin — it is stretching the point, I know, but the defence is conceivable — may have changed his mind: he certainly never committed himself in advance to resignation if a certain thing happened. He certainly never put himself in the position of Mr Varley. That minister did not merely suggest that if at sometime in the future his Cabinet colleagues did this or that he would resign. He said in terms, and he caused to be said on his behalf, that Mr Wilson and Mr Lever were proposing to do something which he considered wrong and foolish, all the details of which he knew, not in years or months or weeks, but in hours; and that if they did it he would resign. And they went and did it, and he got up in the House of Commons and said they were right to do it.

Resignation has often been the leaven in the bread of British politics. Individual resignations may be wrong or foolish or plain egotistical; but their occurence has from time to time demonstrated that there is somebody willing to stand out from the herd, that a government is not a collection of office-holders merely, but a coalition of independent minds. Mr Varley roundly claimed his place in such a coalition, and when invited to take it ran from the decision.

To understand why he did so we have to look again at his background. During his brief time at the Ministry of Energy Mr Varley not only made a number of sensible and independentseeming decisions, but he went out of his way to tell people that they were both sensible and independent. When he moved to the Department of Industry he was welcomed as a replacement for that werewolf of nationalisation Mr Benn. Again, he made reassuring noises of various kinds, and promptly moved to alter the extremist image his predecessor had already gained for the Labour Government. What neither friends nor critics nor Mr Varley himself realised at the time was that his whole existence as a politician, his promotion and his transfer alike, depended on Mr Wilson. Unlike Mr Benn or Mr Callaghan he had no repository of strength in the Labour movement: he had no political life independent of the puppet master who had selected him when a youngster and groomed him for stardom. At the height of the Chrysler crisis Mr Varley forgot for a moment

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who was pulling the strings;

whistled, and the puppydog, casting a frig"ei ened glance at the wilderness of backberl

politics, came rapidly to heel. ernmbrerw20,15;;

None of this would matter so much if 1°.! Varley was an incompetent minister. But be not: what the Prime Minister has forced swallow is a violation of his own excellei:.' common sense. Mr Varley arrived at conclusion against helping ehrysler in th 0 same way that he reached his earlier decision t. concentrate all the resources of the Dqa.rti, ment of Energy on producing a wholly Rile nuclear reactor, by studying the availabis. evidence and then opting for the most proiThe ing alternative. As I have observed bef°roi; ministers in the present Government ever when they are commonly described in the Pre,st as moderate, are apt to support the doctrinaire of policies, like Mr Prentice ato Education or Mr Crosland on housing. VI 0 now, however, Mr Varley has stood apart ic°01 party dogmatism, and thus gained a 115e inconsiderable measure of respect in the Wu of Commons. But he is probably by now dead to thet consequences to himself of the loss of resPect which he has thrown away. On Monday the day before he performed his foi mal act -d self-humiliation before Parliament, he 111,3;3

, something to say which was indicative

future attitude. The subject under discuss.IA was the report of the Central PolicyRevit'he Staff — the so-called think-tank' — On -yr British motor industry. It has been known of some time that the CPRS was highly critid3'.0 what the Government is pleased to eallimi e strategy for the industry; that the Minister had already expressed his displeas"id at the findings; and that the Cabinet had hetie up the publication of the report for fear of this emban-assment it would cause. None of tsi. was, of course, Mr Varley's fault: the resP°11.0.0 bility for delay lay entirely with the Prifoie Minister. But it took Mr Varley, in his new ;or of catspaw, not merely to support a postponement of the publication of the rePdso that it would be available only too late Wre, of any use in Tuesday's debate — but tegthe giously to assert that any revelation di 016 Government's policy before the debate '‘vi° v not be helpful". Certainly it would 0'101 helpful to a minister who has made a N19! 0 himself, for it would greatly sharpen


of him; but that is hardly the right 1(0":;op criterion for assessing what inforrna" government should pass to Parliament

when. a


But, though the voice is the voice a the hand is the hand of Wilson. Without ro Mr Wilson is the most formidable Ply manager Britain has seen for a generation;toe has always been too prone, however, to conince office with power and, whereas he was O1 altogether over-delighted with his oWn to escape from traps, he is now quite siA' delighted to find himself in them, ifice continually demeans both himself and his when he pays tribute, willingly or unwk to those who entrap him. He matert;-1,3 damaged his own prestige and his coun, toe interest in his conduct of negotiations With 0e , EEC prior to the energy conference' e prostrates himself almost daily befc'rvi succession of trade union leaders. And ncl ,nly. has put himself in hock to Detroit: not "pot indeed, has he put himself in hock — hansier at risk the whole of his government's ddud-orie. inflationary strategy. All that he has fist though, is less contemptible than the fact he clearly enjoys doing it.