Tribune leader, 30 October 1992
It now seems that last weekend’s headlines suggesting that John Major would call a general election if he lost next Wednesday’s Commons vote on the Maastricht Bill were the result of a misunderstanding.
We were assured this week that he had not intended to give the impression to “senior officials” travelling with him on his trip to Egypt that defeat would mean going to the country for the second time in a year.
What he (and they) meant to convey, explained the self-same “senior officials” unashamedly, was simply that a defeat on Maastricht would be terribly serious. Mr Major would rather go for an election than give up the Tory leadership to some anti-Maastricht figure. An early election was not on the cards, they told journalists.
Nevertheless, the frisson of excitement that all those headlines sent down spines throughout Britain was significant. There is undoubtedly a growing feeling in the country that Mr Major and his government have run out of steam and that a general election should take place sooner rather than later.
It is easy to see why. In the past six months, Mr Major and his team have shown themselves to be incompetent almost beyond belief. Instead of the recovery we were promised, Britain has suffered ever-deepening recession. Redundancies were making news even before the shocking announcement that 30,000 jobs would go in the pits.
Instead of a strong currency in the exchange rate mechanism and zero inflation, Mr Major has presided over withdrawal of sterling from the ERM and a 20 per cent devaluation which will inevitably cause import prices to rocket.
The government’s economic strategy is in tatters and Mr Major is giving the impression of having no idea of what to do next, apart from pinching a few ideas from Labour’s economic policy. Tory backbenchers are in open revolt over Europe. Public confidence in the government has collapsed.
In the circumstances, Labour should have no hesitation in going all out to force the government into an early election.
Voting against the government next Wednesday, on a Maastricht paving motion or an adjournment debate, makes perfect sense. There is a real but slim chance that, with the Tories in disarray, defeat for the government could panic Mr Major to gamble on going to the polls.
At the same time, however, it is crucial both that Labour recognises that its efforts might not have the effect that it wants and that the party does nothing that compromises its integrity as a pro-European party.
No one should be too down-hearted if the attempt to bring the government down does not come off this time – and the message that Labour sees Europe as the key to its alternative economic policy must be heard loud and clear above the hubbub of parliamentary manoeuvring.