11 OCTOBER 1975, Page 6

Political commentary

Changes at the top

Patrick Cosgrave

Parties, like systems of government, are slow to change. And when a major change in their character or organisation is noticed, it suddenly becomes apparent that the preparation for it has been going on for some time. Years after he had become Prime Minister Churchill observed of the changes he had made in the system of British government in 1940 that they were more real than apparent. At the time, he had been attacked both by his old Tory and his new Labour friends for appointing too many of the old appeasing gang to high office. Many of his 'cronies', as they were called by that powerful civil servant, Sir Edward Bridges, were almost altogether passed over. Yet, within a year it was clear that he had altered both British government and the Conservative Party profoundly: he had altered the system of government in a way the full nature of which was not apparent until the 'seventies, by sketching out an early version of the super-ministries which now dominate the Cabinet; and he had altered his .party by the new men he had brought to the fore.

It is far too early to say whether Mrs Margaret Thatcher will make any major contribution to the British system of government. But, as she consolidates her hold on the leadership of the Conservative Party it becomes increasingly clear that there has been a major change in character and personality near the top. And it would be surprising if, in her first Shadow Cabinet reshuffle — which cannot be delayed for more than a few months — she did not develop some of the implications of those first changes. Yet, at the outset some of those who had most earnestly supported Mrs Thatcher in her fight for the leadership were bitterly disappointed at her failure to prefer those who seemed to them to be the right people, and even expressed the fear that she had gone too far in the appeasement of the people she had replaced. After her American tour, and her speech in Chicago — where she gave the defeat of inflation a higher priority than the attack on unemployment — in particular all that early confusion must, it is clear, drop away.

The public has yet to become aware of Mr Airey Neave as a major political figure. But, then, Mr Whitelaw was virtually unknown outside Westminster until he became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, yet he had been a most powerful influence on the construction of Mr Heath's Conservative Party up to and including the general election of 1970. Mr Whitelaw's career at the top has been a fairly brief one: he is already, clearly, a fading figure, while Mr Neave is a coming one. Mr Angus Maude has been rather less energetic as Chairman of the Conservative Research Department than many — including Mrs Thatcher — had expected, but he has been far more important an influence than Mr Maudling or Lord Fraser, who shared the responsibility for that part of the Conservative organisation when Mr Heath was in opposition. Lord Thorneycroft — who is still thought of as a politician, but who has been away from active politics for "so long that he should more properly be considered a party functionary — is the first fulltime administrative chairman of the Conservative Party and its Central Office since Lord Poole. Mr Gordon Rees—a charming, energetic, bespectacled man with rather long hair — has a very different, much more politically neutral attitude to his job as Mrs Thatcher's public relations adviser than had Mr James Garrett and Mr Barry Day under Mr Heath. Above all Sir Keith Joseph, who has been less pushful in the Shadow Cabinet than he has been in public, remains Mrs Thatcher's chief hope in the field of philosophical and policy development.

Between them, all these men have settled in quietly at the top of the Conservative Party, and their distinctive views — with the exception of Mr Rees — on the nature of the Conservative future will be dominant in the run-up to the next general election. The Tory Reform Group, which is an amalgam of the left-leaning pressure groups of the Heath years, though it can muster Mr Robert Carr and Mr Peter Walker among its patrons with high ministerial experience, already looks a passé thing. For, in the Conservative, unlike the Labour, Party, it is virtually impossible to organise a rearguard ideological action. The Reform Group wants to preserve the nature of the policies, and the power of the personalities, of Mr Heath's period of government; but an operation of this kind is impossible without some access to the nuts and bolts of the party machinery.

However, so public have been the quarrels and arguments, both over personalities and policies, since last spring, that the emergence and consolidation of the new leadership have been obscured. In some respects, of course, that consolidation has been imperfect. One of the most important promises Mrs Thatcher made in the course of her campaign was to bring on new people, something that Mr Heath had declined to do until the closing weeks of his leadership. She was less radical in this respect than many expected, and only two members of her Shadow Cabinet could genuinely be said to be new arrivals. These, Mr Norman Fowler and Mrs

Sally Oppenheim, have not been notably successful in holding the public eye. There has, however, been little to say in either the field of social welfare or that of consumer affairs which is genuinely eye-catching, so it is understand

able that Mr Heath's vanquished cohorts have continued to hold the centre of the stage, for they have been arguing, as has Sir Keith Joseph, about the central issue of economic management. However, in the next six months it will be necessary for a Conservative Party increasingly committed to attacking inflation by way of reducing public expenditure, toler

ating the consequent rise in unemployment,

and rolling back government activity in a whole series of areas of the national life, to produce attractive and interesting ameliorative policies, and these will be the responsibility of Mr Fowler and Mrs Oppenheimer. There has thus been a genuine break with the policies and the philosophy of Mr Heath, and he has recognised that. But the break has, so far, been embodied in personalities rather than policy statements. Nor has Mrs Thatcher

sought the aid of the more dramatic persona

lities, the appointment of whom to her front bench would have made the difference between the Conservative Party of autumn 1974 and that of autumn 1975 apparent as well as real: Mr John Biffen and Mr Nicholas Ridley, in particular, remain on the backbenches, but solely, it seems, because Mrs Thatcher believes that neither could be offered a junior post, and

her policy of slowly shifting the intellectual balsance of the party to the right dictated their exclusion from the Shadow Cabinet. Both could be expected to hold high office in a Thatcher cabinet.

Where Mrs Thatcher and Lord Thorneycroft have been particularly slow is in the making of changes in the party organisation. Nothing structural has been done at Smith Square, and no encouragement has been offered to any particular faction within the National Union.

But Mr William Clarke, as the party treasurer closest to Mrs Thatcher, who has the unenviable task of looking every day at the financial mess which the new leader inherited last spring, is in exactly the same intellectual and moral mould as Sir Keith Joseph, Mr Neave and Lord Thorneycroft. Further, both Sir Richard Webster, the chief national agent, and Lord Fraser, the most senior and experienced of all the Tory Party's civil servants, will shortly retire; and their departure will inevitably see the promotion of some new Tories. For the moment, it seems, Mrs Thatcher has relied on her own personality to win over the party machine in the country, and this is one of the reasons why, in the constituency parties, so much hostility to her, and regard for Mr Heath, remains. The virtue of her quiescence has, however, been the avoidance of the kind of civil war within the party which would certainly have followed any attempt wholly to purge the party apparatus, or dominate it with her own people, in the way that Mr Heath did with his during his leadership.

But all this underlines an obvious truth: the most important Conservative, and the only major asset the party possesses, is Mrs Thatcher herself. The major question is not whether the party will reject its own left and coalitionist wing; but whether the electorate will be ready for the genuine alternative to Labour which Mrs Thatcher will offer them.