5 JULY 1975, Page 6

Political Commentary

After Woolwich-the advantage and the danger

Patrick Cosgrave

The consequences of a by-election are often impalpable; and quite frequently bear little relation to any mathematical lessons that may be drawn from the scrutiny of voting patterns in a given constituency. As judged by the press, and within the Conservative Party, the consequences of the by-election at Woolwich East can be compared only to those of the Devizes by-election more than a decade ago. Then, a Conservative government, reeling from the combined results of disappointment in foreign and domestic policy, scandal, falling public esteem, and the effect of a newly confident opposition, found new heart when Mr Charles Morrison, at the end of a supremely vigorous campaign, emerged victorious. It would be wrong to say that his success restored their confidence, but at least they began to hope. But, though the swing at Devizes proved remarkably close to that in the general election of 1964, that election was still lost to Mr Harold Wilson.

1 am in no way seeking to decry the energy — or the triumph — of Mr Peter Bottomley at Woolwich, nor seeking to suggest that Mrs Thatcher's much-needed fillip which his success gave her is other than deserved and timely. But its benefits are most likely to lie within the Conservative Party itself, rather than in the country at large.

Until Woolwich there was a rising tide of discontent within the Conservative Party, much of it on tactical and personal rather than on philosophical or policy grounds. That discontent has been, for the moment, stilled. And of course it is true that, however sound or high-principled a political leader, however much in tune with the most fundamental impulses and beliefs of his or her party, there is no medicine like electoral success. As Mr Jock Bruce-Gardyne once observed, the Tories would have cheered Mr Heath to the echo at the Blackpool conference of 1970 even had he undertaken to nationalise the means of production, distribution and exchange. And this is, surely, a very understandable human preference. Aside from a handful . in the Conservative Party, and a minority in the Labour Party, most followers of parties — and most politicians, for that matter — are less interested in, and less intelligent about, principle and policy than they are about seeing their side, or themselves, in office. Office may weary; and abandonment of principle and belief become too obvious to be borne. But for an opposition especially, any demonstration that it is loved — or even preferred — in the country is the best conceivable tonic.

But, as has already been pointed out, Woolwich may provide Mr Wilson with considerable advantages too. In the tone of Labour comment on the result there was a note of undisguised disappointment, quite different from that putting-on-a-brave-face attitude which normally is adopted by the spokesmen of defeated parties. True, as usual, the left will say that Labour lost because it was not left enough; and the right because it was not moderate enough. But, on past performance, Mr Wilson is most likely to use the result to quiet the left's demands and to clear ground around himself for the taking of some stern action on the economy. If this is the case, the left will have retreated without the right advancing very much; and all will be again to the glory of Mr Wilson. It is precisely this existing division within the Labour Party — quite unlike any division there was within the Conservativ,e Party at the time of Devizes which makes it possible for the Prime Minister to manoeuvre among his own troops, and possibly even to produce the policies which might succeed in getting him out of his present hole and set on the path towards another election victory.

There can, I think, be little doubt that one of the main influences on the electors of Woolwich was their perception of the fact that, while ministers proceed up and down the country bewailing the present state of affairs, and predicting doom around the corner (or at least in six,now two, weeks), they have done precious little to avert that doom. Now, I am in no way predisposed always to demand of governments that so-called strong action which is the normal cry of the socialist and the statist: but people do expect their rulers to do something about difficult and dangerous situations, especially when those rulers spend much of their time on public platforms proclaiming the existence of danger, and virtually no time at all saying what they are going to do about it. Further, with her considerable capacity to strike at the opponent's jugular, Mrs Thatcher has seen precisely this failure on the part of the government, and never fails to hammer it home when she rises to speak in public. She has been able even to avoid the eternal boringness of the politician who is always crying out for action by turning her call into a sarcasm, as when she said the other day, with considerable if acerbic humour, that she asked Mr Wilson at least twice a week what he was going to do, and never received an answer.

Mr Wilson is waiting on Mr Jack Jones. It is already perfectly clear that the Government would find it impossible to introduce a wages freeze; and virtually impossible unilaterally to reduce public expenditure by anything like the amount that would be required to halt the inflationary spiral. What Mr Wilson and Mr Healey need is time: both men realise perfectly well that, over the next year or so, public

expenditure must decline steeply, and unemployment must rise fairly rapidly. What they must try to do tactically is allow both of these things to happen — with just a push here and a nudge there — without their followers realising that it is the Government which is causing both. And, at the same time, they must try to persuade the trade unions to accept a moderation of wage demands, both because sudh moderation would be generally accepted as a positive something or other in the battle against inflation, and because it would help to curb unions increasingly over-mighty in their effect on general industrial policy. If they are to achieve any success in this policy they must depend on Mr Jones, for he and he alone among major trade union leaders will do his best to help them out. But what we are heading for,-if Mr Wilson has his way, is not a seriously anti-inflationary special budget, but a Social Contract Mark II, which the Prime Minister hopes will buy him more time.

If this analysis is correct, Mrs Thatcher — especially after Woolwich — enjoys one considerable advantage, and faces one considerable danger. The advantage is that, while the Labour Party squabbles within its own ranks, and while Mr Wilson manoeuvres ceaselessly to hold it together, even at the cost of dangerously postponing the only kind of action that will save the economy, the kind of policy which she and Sir Keith Joseph favour, and which the Tory dissidents oppose, will increasingly become the only one which the country is prepared to believe in, however harsh it may appear to be in the short term. Timing and luck in politics are all important but, even without awaiting an open split in the Labour Party, Mrs Thatcher could well see the government disintegrating before her eyes and, since the disintegration of government means the disintegration of the economy, she might see a country willing again — as it was in 1970, when the chance was not seized — to adopt the policy of honest money.

The danger she faces is this. If Mr Wilson brings forward a package which splits the Labour Party — that is, if his present manoeuvres fail — she must decide whether to offer to sustain him in office or force him to a general election. Hitherto, as becomes a loyal opposition, the Conservatives have stressed — of all beliefs — their willingness to support the Government and see that it has a majority in the House of Commons for any measures that it — the Opposition — judges to be in the national interest; and the Conservatives have further made it clear that, in return for this support they would require concessions by the government on other extreme Labour policies outside the package itself. But, what if Mr Wilson produced a package which was popular in the country — as a Mark II Social Contract is certainly quite likely to be — but which Mrs Thatcher regards as purely a piece of window dressing?

In such circumstances Mrs Thatcher, if she decided to support the Government in the lobbies, would be releasing a number of left-wing Labour members for opposing votes or abstentions. She would find herself compromised by being trapped in the toils of a false compromise and when, in due course, that policy too failed, she might find it difficult to extract herself from those toils. The Tories would have to be very sure indeed that any split in the Labour Party was major and fundamental before they committed themselves to support the Government; and they would have to be very confident, intellectually and morally, of their ability to argue coherently during a general election campaign against any cosmetic package which the Prime Minister had put forward and which did not fundamentally divide his party, especially if that package was popular in the country, before they tried to force him to a general election. The choice is unenviable; and the victory in Woolwich, while not substantial in itself, has merely given Mrs Thatcher more room in which to make it.