A Tory warning from the last ditch
by Chris Patten, MP
Most Conservative Members of Parliament listening to the Chancellor’s economic statement last week seemed, as P. G. Wodehouse might have written, about as cheerful as Prometheus watching his vulture drop in for an early lunch. It is not therefore surprising that some of my colleagues are considering adopting the Irish tactic and turning up at the end of today's debate on Geoffrey Howe’s latest measures to abstain in person. I take the point but I'm not sure it’s right.
This may demonstrate wringing wetness of the more traditional kind. There is never a perfect time for making a stand - or a futile gesture: take your pick. “We’re like a lot of boy scouts”, a Tory moderate said the other day, “looking for somewhere to set up camp, with tent pegs and guys in our hands. Each time one person spies a bit of ground where we could pitch tent, someone else comes along and says that there’s a better spot on the other side of the hill. And in the meantime, the night draws in.” Labour moderates never found quite the right bit of ground, and look at what has happened to their party. Will a similar lack of resolve help to ruin the Conservative Party? Have we arrived at the last ditch?
I don’t think we have. Our condition is very different from Labour’s. No-one has been hounded out of the Conservative Party for his views. Despite some occasional suggestions to the contrary (like the eyeball-to-eyeball Left-versus-Right confrontation over who should be vice-chairman of the back bench arts committee), we are still members of more or less the same party. And opinion is shifting slowly but steadily in the moderate Tory direction. Doubts about the Government’s economic strategy are not only harboured behind waist-coats and murmured in the smoking room. They are expressed in almost every speech or question on the economy in the Chamber. It would be a pity to risk repelling support by a “demo” which looked to some to be motivated, at least in part, by a general lack of house spirit.
I would guess that most Conservative MPs believe rightly that British industry, whether by design or not, has become more competitive because of the recession and that we should not now abandon counter- inflation policy with year-on-year price increases still in double figures and likely to stay there for many months ahead. Yet there is a growing feeling that we should be giving industry more help to take advantage of its potential strength. The Treasury gave no ground to this view last week. The package raised industry’s costs and probably, as the Manchester Chamber of Commerce has argued, helped to increase inflationary wage pressures. Its main purpose was to keep intact the ramshackle Medium Term Financial Strategy whose discreet abandonment many of us could accept with equanimity.
In general, however, the package did little extra damage that cannot be put right in the spring Budget. There are two exceptions to this, the cuts in unemployment anti in supplementary benefit. We are told that we should swallow these with a good grace because they might have been much worse. We have been here before. One can imagine Herod’s damper ministers telling their friends that they really shouldn’t protest too much about the slaughter of the first-born because his Cabinet had actually managed to persuade him not to put everyone under the age of eleven to the sword.
This argument simply will not wash any longer. There may be arguments about what “One Nation” Toryism should amount to nowadays. But what it clearly should not mean is placing some of the largest burdens on the shoulders of those least able to bear them. Many of the unemployed are the innocent casualties of the fight against inflation. Their benefit has already been cut by five per cent and the earnings related supplement disappears completely next year. The “why work?” problem can hardly be used to justify this further cut when the main question for many people today is now to getwork?
The cut in supplementary benefit, the lowering of the safety net for the poorest, is equally unacceptable. A volume of weasel words cannot hide the fact that we have apparently decided that our pledge to the very poor is - to use the Watergate adjective - inoperative. These proposals save very little money, perhaps no more than £65m in 1982-83. We should campaign in the next few months to change the Government’s mind. If we fail, then I have no doubt that we should take our opposition into the lobbies when the uprating orders come before the Commons.
But that is not a reason for abstention tonight. I think we are likely to gain more by giving the Cabinet the benefit of the doubt one last time. There are some signs of change, though there is little to be said for rolling over on our backs with our legs in the air just because vie catch the distant sound of the word ‘flexibility’. Above all, there are signs of change in the Parliamentary Party, the first stirrings which suggest that the Conservative Party has not yet entirely lost its common sense or its admirable instinct for self-preservation.
Between now and the Budget we have to insist, as the Cabinet is apparently intent on doing, that our viewvs are taken into account. The Budget must contain measures for helping industry, perhaps through a cut in the National Insurance Surcharge or an adaptation of Professor Layard’s plans for job creation. It will be clear by the spring whether what appears to be the Chancellor’s main hope - namely that his own Treasury’s forecasts are much too gloomy - is justified or not. The political consequences of continuing as we are should also be more plain even to those who at present seem incapable of detecting what is fractionally beyond the end of their noses. The Budget, in short, must contain a package for the revival of industry, or it will threaten the survival of the Conservative Party.
That, then, is my last ditch. I apologize to my friends that it is somewhere to the rear of theirs. But it is not indefinitely moveable. I am quite prepared to clamber down into that ditch now, and set my feet in blocks of concrete, if that is the price to be paid for not joining those who may abstain tonight.
The author is Conservative MP for Bath