Why Howe should heed that lorry rumble
This has been a week of Tory revolts. On Tuesday evening 14 Conservative back-benchers abstained in the vote on Sir Geoffrey Howe’s mini-Budget. On Wednesday 11 of them voted with the Opposition against any increase in heavy lorry weights, while a number of other Conservatives abstained.
On Thursday Mr Tom King, the Minister for Local Government, was carefully testing opinion at a Conservative backbench committee to ensure there would be sufficient support for the new Bill on local government finance. This has been prepared by Mr Michael Heseltine to replace the earlier one, whose controversial provision for referendums on supplementary rates was in effect vetoed by the objections of Conservative members, and the Government was clearly nervous that the new Bill might suffer the same fate.
That same evening the parliamentary week was to all intents and purposes concluded at the 1922 Committee of Conservative back- benchers with a discussion, which was better humoured than might have been expected, of the issue of backbench criticism of the Government.
So altogether it has been quite a week for the Conservative Party in the House of Commons. But how serious has this upsurge of criticism been, and how great a threat does it pose to the Government’s future? To some extent a greater inclination to rebel is to be expected of backbenchers these days whichever party is in office. They are more eager than previous generations of members to assert themselves. That is why it is no longer possible on either side of the House to impose discipline as tightly as in the past.
But the latest Tory rebellion cannot be attributed simply to this trend. There is a great deal of anxiety about the Government’s economic policy, and consequently the party’s political prospects. This anxiety is impressed not only in public revolt and private pressure on economic policy itself but .also in a greater propensity to rebel on other questions.
This is partly out of frustration among those who have been partly smothering their unease on the big issue, and partly from irritation that a government that is already in enough trouble should be so foolish as to risk the voters’ wrath on peripheral matters.
The revolt on heavy lorries and the explosion of feeling over referendums on the rates should therefore be regarded as further indirect evidence of the doubt and tension in the party over economic policy. The number of those who actually refused to vote for, the mini-Budget in the Commons may seem modest enough. A government with a comfortable overall majority ought to be able to put up with 14 rebels without too many qualms. But it is now almost certainly true that a majority of Conservative backbenchers are critics of the policy, and among those who are normally classed as supporters there are distinct reservations.
Indeed, some of his nominal supporters have so many doubts about what the Chancellor is doing that it would probably be more accurate to reclassify them as simply anti-wets. They would happily back what they have understood Sir Geoffrey’s policy to be, if only he would put it into practice. Then there are those who continue to support the policy, but without evident conviction. It is rather less than a ringing declaration of faith when a person says that it is too late to change course now, or that there can be no certainty that any other strategy would be more successful.
There is another group of apparent supporters who say the policy is all right but they wish Sir Geoffrey would present it more effectively. If only, they lament, the country could be made to understand what is being done. There are usually deeper reasons for worry whenever politicians start to complain about the presentation of a policy.
But if Sir Geoffrey has cause to be uneasy about some of his friends, what about his critics? They can be divided into different groups in terms of purpose and approach. There are some who want the Chancellor to instigate an increase in spending because they genuinely believe this would get the economy moving again. There are others who are not so sure that more spending would really help the economy, but who believe that at least it would show that the Government was trying to do something about the continuing recession and rising unemployment. In other words, they are looking principally to the immediate political effects of economic action.
Although these two groups differ in their analysis, there is no reason why they should not make common cause. Both of them want the Chancellor to change course. But there is a difference on tactics among the Tory critics which cuts right across the distinction between the economists and the politicians. Some prefer to launch a public assault, believing either that such open pressure is the best way to induce the Cabinet to insist on a change of direction, or that it is at least the most promising means of persuading their constituents that they should not be blamed personally for the Government’s economic failings. With the SDP and the Liberals now breathing down many a Conservative neck, that is now quite an important consideration. Or they may possibly believe that public criticism of the Government today is the best method of putting down a personal marker.
Another group of critics, though, is concerned above all to bring an adjustment of policy, and believes that for the moment that is more likely to be achieved by semi-private persuasion - or at any rate by avoiding open rebellion against the Whips in the Commons. Mr Chris Patten’s article in The Times on Tuesday was a notable example of this school of thought.
These two groups, the open attackers and the private persuaders, are likely to maintain their different tactics at least until the Budget. But if the Chancellor makes no concession to them then he will have serious trouble in the party. There is no serious demand among Conservative backbenchers for a massive reflation. There is no general agreement even I among Sir Geoffrey’s critics as to precisely what he should do. But it he is not to have difficulty from the benches behind him he will have to take some steps, either direct or indirect, to ease the burden on industry.
If he fails to do that, how serious will the trouble be? It would not lead to the fall of the Government or of Mrs Thatcher personally. It might lead to the fall of Sir Geoffrey, with an increasing number even of his supposed supporters murmuring that the more uncomfortable the policy the more it needs to be presented with sparkle. It would not lead to the rejection of the Budget in the Commons, but the Finance Bill might well be mauled quite a bit. It would not lead to the break-up of the party: for all their woes, the Conservatives retain a greater basic cohesion than is widely appreciated. But the impression would be intensified of a government that had lost its way. An administration may continue to win every vote in the Commons, but be mortally wounded by the criticisms of its followers.