Britain's minority. Labor Party government survived another vote of confidence here Thursday night and can put off facing the electorate for still another day. This time, however, the price was high.
Prime Minister James Callaghan was forced to throw away his big stick-sanctions-against inflationary pay increases. That loss could compel him to speed up his election timetable and call elections as early as Marcy.
Indeedm the Daily Mirror, the only national paper that backs Labor, urged as much in an editorial splashed over the front page this morning. "Let The People Vote," the paper cried in Boxcar type. "Before the winter is out, the prime minister should call a general election."
Britain's current exercise in politics and economics could contain some lessons for Washington. It suggests that pay guidelines, or incomes policy, cannot work in a democracy without substantial support from organized labor and corporate business.
For the past three years, the unions here have backed the Callaghan government's ceilings on pay increases, either openly or tacity. As a result, the anti-inflation that topped 30 percent at one point came down to less than 10 percent.
When the unions overwhelmingly rejected Callaghan's call for continued restraint, however, the government turned to sanctions much like those adopted by the Carter adminstration, threatening to cut off government orders and the other benefits from companies that agreed to pay increases above 5 per cent.
The big test came last month when Ford Motor's British sudsidiary settled a strike with a 17 percent increase for its workers and was prompyly threatened by Callaghan's sanctions. Big business howled in rage. So did left wing Labor members of Parliament speaking for union leaders.
The use of sanctions or penalties had never been approved by Parliament and never put to a real test there until this week. In the decisive vote on the issue, Fallaghan lost, 285-283. He was beaten by a curious alliance of opposition Conservatives, minor party members and a handful of left-wing strays from his own ranks.
The next night, however, Callaghan tried to recover with the vote of confidence in his government, and won, 300-290.
He can go on winning this sort of battle almost as often as he likes. There are 10 Ulster Protestants who do not want Callaghan brought down until his bill is passed to give Northern Ireland five more parlimentary seats. There are 14 Scottish and Welsh nationalists who also are safe votes for Callaghan, at least until March 1, when thanks to Callaghan, they will vote on referendums for a measure of self-rule in their ancient kingdoms.
By winning confidence votes in Parliament now has an increasingly hollow ring. Before Thursday's Callaghan had to acknowledge that sanctions were dead, that he must now fight inflation with one hand tied behind his back.
Callaghan relishes being prime minster and counts every day at 10 Dowing Street as a day gained. He could try to hang on, applying the 5 percent limite to government workers-a large share of the work force here-and suffering through a wave of strikes. He could hope that the government's Prices Commission would discipline the private sector, refusing to allow companies to pass on to consumers the costs of wage gains above 5 percent.
Some of Callaghan's key advisers are now telling him that this is a risky and possibly humiliating course. If he had an infettered choice, the prime minister would put off the election until late spring or even until the last possible legal date in October.
As he goes to his Sussex farm this weekend for Parliament's holiday recess, he will be considering the pros and cons of a March date.
On the other side, Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party leader, has never doubted that the sooner the election, the quicker she will becomme Britain's first woman prime minister.
A Gallup Poll out this week gives her Conservatives a 48 to 42.5 percent lead over Labor, far from decision but much more comforting than the polls in October and November. Then they gave Labor an edge of five percentage points.
All three samplings suggest that the outcome will be closed, that a sizable number of voters are still swinging back and forth uncertainly between the two major parties.