Cheer now, pay later
One could really only savour the full, rich flavour of last week's Conservative party conference by sitting there listening to the speeches from floor and platform and imag- ining just what it would have been like had Labour won the general election.
Throughout it all, Mr Heath, suntanned and beaming, glowed with pride and satis- faction. Indeed, with the television lights switched on he seemed to possess one of those behind-the-head haloes you see adorn, ing the saints in mediaeval icons.
But all this has more to do with public re- lations than with government (if you think they are the same thing, you are suffering from an overdose of the Harold Wilsons). Since he became Prime Minister, Mr Heath has adopted with his Ministers the role of a remote company chairman who really be, lieves in delegating responsibility to his sub. ordinates. In theory that must be a good thing: in practice, with a number of Minis- ters who have never before held office, it tends to produce stomach ulcers among the directors and an inordinate degree of ner- vousness at board meetings. One product of this nervousness has been to elevate the role of Mr William Whitelaw, Leader of the House and a paragon of good sense, affability and confidence, into becoming a kind of surrogate, everyday Prime Minister. One senior Civil Servant, musing on the change of style in Government since Mr Heath's arrival at No 10 Downing Street, remarked: `It's quite impossible to get a decision out of Ted. So people tend to ring up Willie when they want to do something and he says, "OK go ahead and I'll square it later with the Prime Minister" or "I shouldn't do that if I were you, Ted mightn't like it": (I can pay no higher tribute to the admirable Mr Whitelaw than to say that he is as gregarious, sensible and open-minded as the best of Mr Wilson's Cabinet. During that false dawn when Harold thought he would win the election, he predicted that in defeat the Tories would ditch Ted and choose Willie as leader.) It is legitimate to assume, therefore, that the tentative way in which Ministers referred to their new policies was not entirely out of a protective feeling towards the privileges of the House of Commons: they might have been trying them out on the Prime Minister as well as the conference. No doubt, as Mr Heath said in his closing speech, that the overall level of cuts in government expendi- ture has been agreed unanimously by the Cabinet, but it seems pretty clear that the way each Minister has secured his own depart- mental economies has not in every case been a matter for full Cabinet discussion. (Brother George, are you listening there below?)
Ministerial style, however, as paraded day after day at Blackpool, is of a high order. Whatever Sir Keith Joseph does with the Welfare State—and recalling Sir Keith's Monday Club connections, I'm cringing al, ready—it was impossible not to admire the adroit way he dealt with the archetypal Tory critics of the workshy, the scroungers, the
strikers who abuse state benefits and all the other lower depths characters who seem to
bring out the worst in well-scrubbed, plump, secure Conservative matrons. Like Mr Maud. ling on Laura Norder (my thanks to Stella Fitz Thomas Hagan for inventing this splen- did lady), Sir Alec on Rhodesia and Mr Carr on industrial relations reform, Sir Keith managed to make obeisance to traditional conference prejudices while at the same time mocking the smallmindedness that gives rise to them. Even Mrs Thatcher, lurid hats and all, seemed a sight more liberal than her audience when she replied to the education debate on the opening day of the conference, excepting, that is, the beautiful and talented Miss Frances Chambers of the Greater Lon- don Young Conservatives. Miss Chambers, whom I was alone in cheering to the echo, seemed to have arrived at Blackpool a week late for the Labour conference.
The Tory conferejtce, in short, was remi- niscent of the old schoolboy game of threat, ening to punch someone while at the last
moment converting the blow into some ha less gesture like scratching your head. With year between each conference, and a nun, of disasters in the greater part of that y.. climaxed by the surprise election victory lot of delegates -must have drafted anti-i pro-Powell speeches for delivery to u seemed likely to be an inquest into deft. Instead of delivering them, they scratch, their heads, joined in the somewhat excess, applause for Mr Heath's Saturday perjo ance and no doubt went home bewildered.
But there is a whole mountain of tin lying around the Tory party waiting to ma a bonfire out of this administration if thin go really wrong. Labour in government s. fered from an ideological gap between constituency activists and the leadership, gap which widened as the complexities government and the limitations imposed events beyond the control of Ministers government policy and government actin further and further away from the wish the will of the rank and file. I do not su scribe to the view that Mr Wilson and colleagues cynically and deliberately bro their promises to their own supporters a to the electorate. They found themselves ut able to keep their pledges: it simply beca impossible.
In much the same way, Tory pledg some of them at least—will prove to be redeemable. The state of the American en omy, perhaps, or a war somewhere or o (hopefully, not the Far East in view of L' Carrington's rash commitments), or an es more spectacular winter of industrial disc tent than we have already bargained for could blow the Conservative govern just as far off course as the Labour govt ment was blown. The winds of the world t little notice of the British domestic polit situation. And if any or all of these thin or some other presently unimaginable di' ters, occur, the poison of political disillus will divide and weaken Mr Heath's admit stration just as surely as events undenni the unity of Mr Wilson's.
Now, if such disasters are big enough, t provide a good enough alibi when deah with reasonable people. No one act blames Harold Wilson for the war in VI• nam, nor can Tories in particular blame hi for devaluation. But once things start gm awry everything else begins to be quest and people become much less reasonable. as it says it will, the administration reve the whole policy of intervention in industn a great many Tory executives and white lar workers could feel the draught. If, as Sh Keith insists, the Health Service will be mar' economic but without allowing the poor suffer, presumably extra charges will fall the prosperous middle class. Add to su possibilities the explosive issue of the C' mon Market and you have the scenario some future Conservative conference—th years hence, perhaps—with a thoroughly popular government trailing well behl Labour in the opinion polls, facing lone discontent among its traditional support and a Prime Minister who, the adulation 1970 victory earned him long forgotten. h retreated into his own private world of picion, mistrust and defensive stubborn on all matters involving his opinion or powers of decision. Mr Heath lacks then! ral buoyant optimism of Mr Wilson. Het' less flexible man. He is deservedly basking the sunshine of success and popularity. this is only the start of what he himself cribes as a revolution, an attempt to ch the course of the history of the nation. It fails the Tory party will not be kind.