25 OCTOBER 1963, Page 4

Political Commentary

Home Rule

By DAVID WATT E is already relaxing. He looks much het- i". ter tonight,' reported Sir John Richardson of his distinguished patient last Friday evening. The picture of Mr. Macmillan sinking back on his pillows with the happy smile of a man whose last act has been to dispose for ever of a far from favourite, colleague will probably, as Bertie Wooster would say, ring down history's pages. It will certainly 'haunt the Conservative Party for many months.

We are told that now the tumult has died away the history of the past few weeks has become irrelevant and that the party will unite speedily under the new Fuehrer. This seems to me rather over-optimistic. The wounds cannot be healed as easily as that. On the purely personal plane it is difficult to see how the new Cabinet can behave for some time as one happy family when words like `oaf,' buffoon,"liar,"lightweight,"spine- less' (to mention only a few epithets I have heard used by Cabinet Ministers of each other recently) are still echoing round the table. More important still is the long-term reaction of many MPs and party workers (to say nothing of float- ing. voters) to a process of choosing a Prime Minister which was certainly chaotic and un- dignified and which appeared, at any rate, to be unfair. To such people the fact that Mr. Butler is not Prime Minister and Messrs. Macleod and Powell refused to serve may for some time seem more significant than the fact that Mr. Butler is Foreign Secretary, Mr. Heath is regional over- lord and Lord Home is a model of gentlemanly integrity.

In its extreme form, of course, the Butlerite theory of events is wrong. Lord Home has not been carried to the Premiership on a wave of right-wing reaction. He is Prime Minister today because Harold Macmillan willed it and because Mr. Butler himself apparently shrank from the office at the last moment. Even the actions of Mr. Macmillan himself, like those of almost everyone else in this macabre affair, were muddled and chancy. It is being widely claimed (mostly by his opponents) that Macmillan had seen far enough ahead to plan the whole cam- paign with .devilish cunning. According to this theory the timing of his resignation letter to the Blackpool conference, perhaps even his illness itself, was devised specifically to boost Hailsham --thus cleverly ensuring a deadlock and the final emergence of Home. This theory does not stand close examination. It is true that a month ago Macmillan had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Lord Home to accept a draft. But all those who saw him at the time of the onset of his illness believe that he was genuinely convinced Lord Hailsham was the best potential election-winner. It was only at the beginning of the next week when he realised that the opposition to Hail- sham within the Cabinet was too great that he once again threw all his energies into persuading Home to take the job. As to the timing, it was forced upon him. It was, I am told, medically possible for him to put off his operation for a week; but it was not practical politics for, if he had done so, he would have had to deliver the final rally speech at the conference in which he was pledged to announce his intention of remain- ing Prime Minister.

His position as king-maker was equally fortuitous. In the so-called 'normal processes of consultation' the obvious (and indeed the only) men suitable for collecting voices in the party were Lord Poole, the Party Chairman, and Lord Home himself. But one had put himself out of court by coming out for Hailsham and the other had gained sufficient support at Blackpool to be considered a candidate, whatever he might say himself.

Up to the weekend Macmillan himself was heavily drugged after his painful operation, leaving only Lord Dilhorne, the Lord Chancel- lor, to do the job, and that gentleman's first attempts at Blackpool were so clumsy that every- one turned with relief to the Prime Minister when he showed the signs of revival on Monday.

What was not chancy, of course, was the way Mr. Macmillan exercised his influence when it came to him; for the truth is that by the time he resigned and gave his advice to the Queen he knew (having heard from the Chief Whip the result of the previous evening's meeting at Mr. Powell's house) that there was not a single mem- ber of the Cabinet who would not serve under Butler whereas at, least two would not serve under Home. He knew that there was only a small minority of rabid anti-Butlerites in the House of Commons and he knew that the con- stituency parties would accept either Home or Butler if he were acceptable to the Cabinet. In spite of this knowledge Macmillan discarded Butler in favour of Home. To what extent per- sonal motives were mingled with political judg- ment we shall never know, but It was an action for which he will be harshly judged and one which a fair section of the party agrees he should not have been given the power to take. One Cabinet member (not a Butler man) actually said, 'Macmillan will bear the responsibility for all subsequent events.' This is going too far, for it leaves out of account the responsibility of Mr. Butler himself..There is little doubt that if Rab had refused to serve under Home the Four- teenth Earl could not have formed a Cabinet and the Queen must have sent for Butler. Why Butler hesitated to do this is another ni■ stery- perhaps tiredness, perhaps niceness, but per- Imps the lack of that last inner core of steel whose absence his criticis have always said de- barred him from the job.

lf, then, these two factors determined the issue, what are we to make of the action of Messrs. Macleod and Powell? If this was no rightist victory over the left is not their gesture of progressive Tory defiance as empty as it is courageous and honest? As I understand it. the position of Mr. Macleod and Mr. Powell is this: the method of choosing the leader in this .instance was not worthy of a modern political party; the will of the majority has been frus-. trated; and a progressive leader has been rejected in favour of one who is, whatever he may claim, to the right of centre. They believe that if pro- gressive Conservative supporters and the great central block of public opinion are to be con- - vinced that this is not the true image of Con- servatism today, some senior Ministers must re- fuse to be party to the deal. The gesture, they must believe, is not only effective as a protest against what has happened: it may also turn out to be a permanent incentive to Home to try and prove them wrong, and they would, I imagine, claim as evidence Lord Home's promise on TV that `Mr. Macleod and Mr. Powell will find themselves completely identified and in agreement with the Government's policies.'

Whether this is a correct diagnosis remains to be seen. No one, not even close Cabinet colleagues, knows what the Prime Minister thinks about economic or internal affairs. The most even his most ardent admirers will say is that he hasn't actually done anything..reactionary. One might argue that a man who does not take any practical interest in these matters cannot have much of a social conscience. But in fact most of the policies on which the Government may be judged at the election are already fixed in the Queen's Speech which was composed by the previous Cabinet. There is, too, a sense in which the noble Earl's relative ignorance of economics is a pOsitive asset, since it will give a freer hand to Messrs. Maudling and Heath. It may be true that the balance within the Cabinet has been altered in favour of the right, but so long as these two hold the key economic posts it is difficult to imagine that reactionary policies will prevail at home.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister can devote him- self to trying to win the next election. No one should underestimate his chances. He has the ineffable asset of looking like an honest amateur .in.politics at a time when the professionals are in public disgrace. He is tough and self-confident. Most of all, he reaps the advantage which Harold Wilson has hogged for the last six months, the glamour of novelty—and its attendant publicity (beginning with the Kinross and West Perthshire by-election and ending, perhaps, with a Summit Conference). The lime-for-a-change' argument has lost much of its sting and unless Mr. Wilson finds a substitute psychological weapon he is in for a difficult six months. ,