Great Britain: A Fair Cop

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The great clock in the House of Commons showed midnight as the debate on Labor's complex finance bill droned on into its 14th week. Government Whip John Silkin, charged with protecting Prime Minister Harold Wilson's scant three-vote margin, made a perfunctory check of the floor. There were 165 Laborites v. a mere 33 Tories still on hand. That seemed a safe enough edge for the government, and he told many of his Labor M.P.s that they could go home.

It was just what the Tories hoped he would do. All evening they had been streaming ostentatiously out of the House as part of an elaborate plot hatched earlier in the day by Conservative Party Chairman Edward du Cann and Tory Economics Spokesman Ted Heath. Instead of going home, the Conservative members gathered for drinks at St. Stephen's Club just two minutes away. Precisely at 1 a.m., a Tory M.P. on the floor moved an amendment to Labor's bill to lower the capital gains tax on mutual funds from 35% to 30%. Right on time, the waiting Tories charged back into the chamber, and by 180 to 166 handed the Labor government its first parliamentary defeat.

The Tory Turn. Just as happened last month when the Tories accidentally managed a tie on another amendment (TIME, June 11), opposition cries of "Resign, Resign!" rolled across the benches. The challenge was largely in jest, for Wilson had made clear he would ignore a minor floor defeat, knowing he could call for a vote of confidence of the full house and win it.

Still, the Tory ambush was an embarrassing reminder of the fragility of Labor's right to rule. "They acted like a bunch of Viet Cong guerrillas raiding one of Saigon's citadels," grumped one Laborite ruefully, though most of his colleagues admitted with grudging admiration that it was "a fair cop." Harold Wilson, sound asleep in No. 10 Downing when the vote took place, decided next morning to let the unwelcome amendment stand, since reversing it would take up at least two precious extra days of a Parliament fast approaching recess. Moreover, Wilson dared not protest too much: in 1952, the Laborites had pulled precisely the same stunt on Sir Winston Churchill's ruling Tories.*

Labor's Apologies. The ambuscade capped a notably disgruntling week for Labor. Answering a Tory heckler at a rally, Deputy Prime Minister George Brown cried: "I once went to a concentration camp called Auschwitz and saw a placard: 'Seven million Jews were killed.' I remember it was due to the policies of your government and, in particular, Neville Chamberlain." Seventy Tory M.P.s promptly labelled Brown's rejoinder a "monstrous slander," and Brown had to issue a formal apology: "It has never been my view that in the period leading up to the Second World War blame rested with any one group alone, and I deeply regret that such an impression should have been given."

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