21 JUNE 1963, Page 4

Political Commentary

Surcease and Succession

By DAVID WATT TliERE can't have been many sadder sights in the history of British politics than the Prime Minister's exit from the House of Commons on Monday night. Head more bowed, shuffle even more pronounced than usual, white as a ghost, he seemed to totter with complete finality out of the Chamber amid the howls of the Opposition and the faint counter-cheers of his own side. As he turned at the Speaker's Chair to face the House again some of his supporters rose and Mr. Macmillan's last glimpse of the battlefield must have been of Lieut.-Col. Sir Walter Bromley- Davenport desperately wiggling his massive fingers in farewell with the expression of an inexperienced father trying to comfort a crying baby. Was this to be the end of the road for the man who rebuilt his party after Suez, the author of the 'wind of change' speech, the great Com- mon Marketeer, the tireless correspondent of Mr. Khrushchev and one of the most adroit politicians there has ever been? The cruelty of politics is no respecter of persons.

It was perhaps this sense of pathos, and the in- appropriateness of fate which caused all but twenty-seven Conservatives to give Mr. Mac- millan the 'sympathetic understanding' he asked for and to look askance at the open savagery of Mr. Nigel Birch's attack on the Lost Leader. It was the same feeling, suitably attenuated, which caused the Opposition to show him unusual courtesy when he came down to answer his normal questions on Tuesday. Nevertheless, this natural rush of sympathy does not alter the present almost universal feeling at Westminster that Mr. Macmillan is doomed.

The immediate cause of his plight is obviously that his handling of the Profumo affair is agreed by the vast majority of his supporters to have been inept and his control over the Security Services inadequate. (The five ministers who fathered Mr. Profumo's statement on March 22 are going to find that their personal involvement will take a lot of living down as well.) The main condemnation of the Prime Minister from his own side is over the organisational question.

Whatever body is set up to look into the business will once again have wearily to go over the whole British Security set-up. The Vassall case showed that there can be a lack of co-ordination between MI5 (the counter espionage service) and the indi- vidual security branches at the ministries. The Profurno affair has shown the dangers which arise from lack of liaison between MI5 and the Special Branch of the police and, even more important, from lack of liaison between M15 and the Prime Minister's private office. It is generally agreed.

that Mr. Macmillan as the responsible minister must take back the can for this kind of failure.

But there are plenty of Conservative back- benchers, and not only hardened critics of the Prime Minister, who are prepared to go further and say that the breakdown stems from Mr. Macmillan's years which prevent him from con- centrating satisfactorily on more than one thing at a time (generally foreign affairs) and which for the last two years have caused his staff to try to take burdens off his shoulders which he ought to be bearing. Moreover, time has accentuated in Mr. Macmillan a certain Whiggish distaste for life as it is lived by the ordinary man, a de- fect exemplified during the debate by his plain- tive apology (when discussing the word 'darling') that do not live among. young people fairly widely' (sic).

Yet in a sense the Profumo affair is not what really matters. The events of the past fortnight would never have assumed so much importance if they had not undammed in the Conservative Party a pent-up flood of frustration and dissatis- faction which began to gather about a year ago. Only eighteen months ago Sir Harry Legge- Bourke resigned from the chairmanship of the Conservative Defence Committee after saying in a far milder form what Mr. Birch trumpeted unpunished on Monday. Even a year ago it is 'doubtful whether more than a very few Con- servatives would have abstained on an issue like Profumo. It was the accumulative effect of the pay-pause, the Cabinet sackings last July, high unemployment, high rates and Chief Enahoro that caused the trouble. Contrary to what has sometimes been said; Mr. Macmillan was aware of this discontent and in March he was genuinely and seriously considering retirement. He told friends at the time that he believed a new leader was wanted for the next election and that the new man should have time to play himself in. It was only after prolonged and gloomy discussion with party leaders that it became clear there was no individual who could take over the Prime Ministership with a united party behind him. Mr. Macmillan's jaunty declaration in April that he proposed to stay till the election was there- fore partly forced on him, but its effect was to tie down the safety valve so securely that on any big rise of the political temperature there was bound to be a dangerous explosion which would force the entire party to reconsider the Prime Minister's position in an atmosphere of un- gentlemanly haste and publicity.

This highly un-Conservative process is now in full swing—to the great enjoyment of back- benchers (who can for once feel important) but to the detriment of Conservative morale. All that has emerged from it so far is that a clear majority of the parliamentary party believes Mr. Macmillan should go as soon as he decently can (there are a few subtle pessimists who are afraid that the Profumo affair is far from over and that it is Mr. Macmillan and not a new man who should take in the eye any further mud that is flying around).

What no one knows is whether Mr. Mac- millan is willing to go, and if he is not whether his departure can be forced. It is beginning to dawn on people that if Mr. Macmillan wishes to stay he still has some strong cards in his hand. He has some sympathy in the country and in Parliament. He has a great deal of power and patronage. And above all, as the man in posses- sion, he has the tactical initiative. His remaining supporters are busily pointing out that if he chooses to stay nothing can force him to go except an adverse vote in the House of Com- mons or a full-scale Cabinet revolt; in either situation he would go to the Queen who, when she discoVered that there was no successor who could command the support of a clear majority of the party, would accordingly call on NI r. Wilsonand a catastrophic election would immediately follow. Even if a successor were waiting in the wings Mr. Macmillan still has the threat of an immed- iate dissolution up his sleeve; and as it happens the question of a successor is still miles from settlement although the entire energies of the party are now bent upon it. The choice lies almost inevitably between Mr. Butler, Mr. Maudling • and Lord Hailsham. Former favourites such as Mr. Heath and Mr. Macleod have been despatched by events and Mr. Powell, though highly admired for his brains and his tortured countenance, is still too unconventional a figure to be a serious prospect. Lord Home is not out of the race but it would need overwhelm- ing pressure to force him to leave the Lords and so far there is no sign of this.

Mr. Butler has the obvious advantages of ex- perience and ability. In addition his age makes it possible for his sponsors to assure doubters that since the Tories are bound to lose the next election anyhow Rab would be an excellent man to put into the firing line—from which he would gracefully retire in time for the election after next. There are unfortunately those who feel that Mr. Butler would do everything gracefully except retire and. that equivocation has now become such second nature to him that under/his guidance British policy would point in fifteen different directions and end by standing still. There is no equivocation about Lord Hailsham, which is why he is adored from afar by country Conservatives. But he is strong meat for members of Parliament who will have to work with and be exhausted at close quarters by his fits of temper and unpredictability. He might, they agree, make the splendid leader of the Opposition but would he make a Prime Minister? The Civil Service and some of his colleagues have pronounced the fatal Establishment verdict----'he lacks judgment' and that is all that can be said.

There remains Mr. Maudling; nice, cosy' modest, easy going, Reggie. He is agreed to be an able man without an enemy in the world but \Nl': can see him as the hammer of the Labour Party: Nevertheless, as one MP put it, 'he's everyone second choice' and in a difficult situation he i' the man most likely to come through and win.

It would be stupid to suggest that Mr. Ma' millan is going to stay whatever happens- for obviously the lobbies would not be buzzing with these alternative candidates unless the case against Mr. Macmillan had become almost overpower- ing. But it is also true that the present atmosphere of hectic intrigue and speculation cannot be allowed to last, and hence the party must be well aware that it must either find a new man within the next week or two or else leave Macmillan in his place for as long as he likes 10 stay.