Time for a Maggie and Ted show
Can there ever have been a time when a Conservative Opposition looked so well fitted for its role? When have we looked less like a party of government and more like a sectional pressure group?
It is only because we no longer look like the natural party of government that there is any doubt at all about the outcome of the next election. For when the electorate is given the chance of voting on the record of the present Labour administration — possibly the least honest and least competent of modern times — any opposition which looked half-way prepared to govern should win comfortably. All the indicators record governmental failure on an unprecedented scale and will continue to do so at least until the end of 1977. So why are we not knocking on the door with the enthusiasm of the Wilson of 1963? Instead we sound as uninterested as the Wilson of early 1973.
An exaggeration? Take a look at our shadow ministers and ask yourselves how many of them would really relish, really enjoy, the idea of power now. How many of all of us do not sometimes feel that it is rather lucky that it is Labour which is having to ride the inflationary tiger through what is likely to be the worst period? That is what it means to have got into a state of natural opposition.
The speed with which such defeatism communicates itself to the commentators and to the constituencies, and the danger of the drug irresponsibility to the central nervous system of a political party (study the for the advanced pathology), shbuld make a change of mood our first priority. Once settled into the opposition frame of mind, parties can stay almost indefinitely on the opposition benches.
The leader is not to blame. No one can doubt her total commitment to victory — in two years' time if necessary; tomorrow if possible. Was it not that capacity to demonstrate commitment which put her so far ahead of the other challengers for the leadership in February? And does it not still put her in a separate category from them now? Unfair as it may be, and hard as others have worked, Margaret Thatcher is alone on the stage so far as our current leadership is concerned.
Herein lies the reason for our failure to look like a party of government. If we are to govern, we must never look like a clique. We never have in the past. Throughout this century our Westminster party has reflected in its leadership the massive foundations of the party in regional politics, in industry, in the law, in finance, in agriculture and the armed forces. Our Cabinets, led by a primus inter pares (whatever his alleged position in the constitution of the party) have numbered big men, of varied backgrounds and independent national structure. As late as 1963 there were perhaps as many as six in one Cabinet, any one of whom would have made a serious candidate for the Prime Ministership. Where are they now?
Our problems do not stem from gaps in policy, or the need for reformulation of principles. Conservative principles have never been difficult or obscure, and the messages of freedom under the law, national unity, less government and more opportunity are there for the telling. It is not new messages we need, but convincing messengers. We need the people who can get on page one of the Sun and the Express, and into the first slot on News at Ten — and go on getting there, month after month.
There is Soames. There is Watkinson. There are people of regional pull who ought to be brought into the party, or advanced faster in it like Teddy Taylor.
But these are really small fry compared to the man who looms over every other Conservative in the country with the exception of Margaret Thatcher, and that is Ted Heath.
I do not believe that we will really have got the Conservative bandwagon rolling again until we have shaken ourselves out of the trance-like state which questions of leadership induce and set about looking at the problem of the collective leadership. For too long we have been mesmerised by the utterly untypical case of Churchill into thinking of the leader as a creature apart: he shouldn't be. Always (including. under Churchill) when the party has been successful it has been led by half a dozen people. No single person can do the job.
At the moment, the collective leadership is not powerful enough. The first step towards strengthening it is that Ted Heath must come back into the team. The personal sacrifice for him will be great; facile comparisons with Sir Alec are wide of the mark: Sir Alec was not succeeded by the leader of an open movement of his critics. If one looks for comparisons Which are nearer the mark, they are much less happy: the split between Austen Chamberlain and Bonar Law comes to mind, or the feud between Lloyd George and Asquith. It cannot be, other than shattering to go through a process like that by which the leadership was taken from Ted Heath: to hear the grudges and the bitterness sweeping away memories of friendship and victory; to see the apparent rejection of twenty-five years' work.
Most of those who lecture him freely on the need for a reconciliation with Margaret Thatcher would be hard put to it themselves to summon up the necessary generosity in such a situation. Ted Heath does have the generosity. If you doubt it, you don't know him.
Without Ted Heath, the process of rebuilding the party into the party of government Cannot begin: for while Margaret Thatcher holds and will continue to hold the leadership unassailably, he has an equally unassailable capacity to keep wrong-footing her leadership as long as he likes. Such an impasse can only end in a permanent split or in reconciliation.
Who cares, sub specie aeternitatis, who was leader at any particular time? Opinion polls show that a good many of our fellow citizens continue to believe, perhaps understandably, that Mr Macmillan is Prime Minister. What does matter is that we should put every resource we have into taking the victory which should be ours in two years' time. We are not in shape to do it yet. We haven't yet got the confidence of the country or enough self-confidence.
Neither will come until Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher are playing for the same team. The first difficult test of Margaret Thatcher's personal stature will be her willingness to try it. Ted Heath has had many decisions as difficult in the past. But he has never had one to make from which such honour could flow.
William Waldegrave was Political Secretary to Edward Heath during his leadership of the Conservative Party