Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)
I see nothing in what Harold Wilsonthe Prime Minister has said today or in his Government's economic performance which would [column 642]justify any vote of confidence in him tonight. One would scarcely think from his catalogue that, in their first two years his Government had slashed nearly a third off the value of the pound in the pocket, that they had made unemployment rise to levels to which it never rose under any post-war Conservative Government or that they had borrowed anything like as much as this Government have done. One might say with E. Dellthe Paymaster-General that Harold Leverthe Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is the most unequal Socialist of them all.
Yesterday evening, after two days of full debate on the Government's economic strategy as set out in the White Paper, and in the absence of the Prime Minister, the Government were decisively defeated and their White Paper policy completely discredited. That defeat took place when the Government's overall majority in the House was three and their practical majority at least seven.
All that the Prime Minister had to do to ensure the continuation of his Government's policies was to carry his own side with him and to win the confidence of his own people. In that he totally failed. In view of his policy of calculated insult today, that is not surprising. He unwittingly revealed the wide gulf which separates the two wings of the Labour Party——
The Minister of State, Department of Industry (Mr. Gerald Kaufman)
What about yours?
What the Prime Minister has is a coalition of Socialists and near-Marxists. He, and only he, is responsible for that failure to keep his own party behind his own Government. That is why he is so angry today—because it is his own failure that is on trial.
There is no precedent for defeat on such a major matter on Supply. The defeat was not on a minor matter such as we have seen before. Governments have been defeated on single clauses in the past, and they have altered a clause. They have been defeated on an Order, and they have altered an Order. No one has suggested that these were resigning matters. The Government were defeated recently over the salary of Eric Varleythe Secretary of State for Industry and no one suggested that that was a resigning matter. But [column 643]when there is a defeat on a matter of major economic strategy, a matter central to the historic nature of the power of the House of Commons over the Executive, that is a resigning matter.
The Government laid before the House a White Paper which they described as their plans for public expenditure until the end of the decade—if they stayed in office. But they did not put down a motion to approve the White Paper, because the Government presumably thought they would be defeated if they were as straightforward as that. Instead they used another motion as a device to avoid defeat. That device proved to be their own undoing and led to their defeat Indeed, it brought about the very defeat they sought to avoid.
The Prime Minister then comes to the House and asks for a vote of confidence today. But a vote of confidence cannot, and is not meant to, paper over a fundamental divide in strategy, a divide which goes to the root of policy. I quote from The Times of this morning a remark made by the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham) referring to a vote of censure or a motion of confidence:
“Our abstention is not against the Government but against one very important aspect of its policy, namely the general economic strategy now being followed.”
That was what the vote was about. It was against the general economic strategy which the Government are following.
Today we have further revelations. The hon. Lady the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) says there will have to be a reply from the Government and, she says:
“Our reaction will depend on what they say. If they are not prepared to budge, then they will get a similar reaction again.”
If the Prime Minister gets a bigger vote tonight they will not have had a miraculous conversion to the Government's strategy. Those people will still disagree with his strategy and, according to what they say, still intend to go on doing so unless it is changed. But E. Dellthe Paymaster-General in winding up for the Government shortly before the vote said:
“I believe we have no choice other than to follow the policies set out in the White Paper.” —[Official Report, 10th March 1976; Vol. 907, c. 554.]
[column 644]So the rift is still there and would still be there in spite of any vote tonight. It is a rift which goes to the root of the Government's policy, and it is a rift which cannot be cured by any vote of confidence tonight.
It shows the main difference between the two wings of the Labour Party. One wants to continue with a mixed economy, the other wants a totally controlled economy. Between those two there can only ever be conflict. Further, we must look at the position of Denis Healeythe Chancellor of the Exchequer negotiating on Britain's finances with other nations. He cannot say to them, “This is my policy and I can carry it through because I have a majority in the House of Commons” . All he can say, whether in Washington or in any European capital, is “I can get through the House only what the Tribune Group will allow me to get through” , and he will have to go on to say, “And I would rather stay in office under their thumb than carry out the policies which I and moderate Socialists believe are right for Britain” .
What will happen, assuming that the vote goes the way the Prime Minister wants tonight, when we come to some of the Budget proposals and the right hon. Gentleman has the same kind of revolt from his own left wing? Are they going to say, “Yes, we have confidence in you to keep you in office but only if you do the things which we, a small minority, wish you to do” ? The Chancellor is selling his soul, and Britain, for a handful of votes to keep himself in office. The Government are in this position. We, the Opposition, disagree with the Government's economic strategy. The Tribune Group disagrees with the general economic strategy now being followed. The Prime Minister therefore is asking the House to support him, provided his Government do not carry out their economic strategy. What a ridiculous and absurd position to get the House of Commons into!
The right hon. Gentleman is asking his hon. Friends to support him in principle even though they disagree with him in principle. It is his Government who are on trial. The Prime Minister is asking for the confidence of his own hon. Friends even though he knows that he has not got it and cannot get it. He is asking to stay in office even though he cannot command [column 645]the authority to govern. He cannot follow the policies of his Government and in particular of his Chancellor. Last night there was a vote of no confidence in his strategy. Today's vote is a device to keep him in power—power without authority, power without principle. That is a position admirably suited to the right hon. Gentleman.