6 SEPTEMBER 1975, Page 6

Six months in the leadership

Patrick Cosgrave

In November last year Sir Keith Joseph made a speech in Birmingham containing some ill-advised remarks about birth control. There was an intense and hostile reaction: "I'm afraid I've let the side down," he said to one of those who had been backing him for the Conservative leadership against Mr Edward Heath, and promptly gave up the fight, to the relief of his family and even of himself. Sir Keith's friend, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, who had consistently backed him in the fight, and resisted the blandishments of that handful of connoisseurs who had preferred her to Sir Keith as an opponent of the incumbent leader, immediately took up the gauntlet. She did so in no very zestful spirit, merely observing that the conviction had grown on her that Mr Heath's continued leadership would be disastrous for the party and adding, "Somebody had got to stand, and I suppose it will have to be me."

On the instant a storm, like to that which had followed Sir Keith's remarks on contraception, broke about her head, because of an interview she had given which was interpreted by her enemies as advocating food hoarding. I said then, and still believe, that Mr Heath's friends, and officials of the party, gleefully helped organise that storm. Mrs Thatcher was shaken, and particularly distressed because of the unprecedented pressure of the press on her family, and especially her daughter Carol, who has never shown the same toughness in the face of publicity as her husband and son. While the row continued she lunched with a friend, and said, "I saw how they broke Keith. But they're not going to break me." The remark was reported to a potential ally — another Joseph supporter, who had been annoyed and upset by Sir Keith's premature withdrawal. He nodded approvingly. "That's my kind of candidate," he said, "You can go away on holiday and come back and find she's still running." Three months later the Conservative Party had its first woman leader.

Thus a preface to a look at Mrs Thatcher six months after her triumph in the leadership contest, and on the occasion of the publication of two biographies.* As always, one has to say that British books about contemporary politics lack the depth, the profusion of information, and the variety of analysis of their American counterparts. But, even if they rise to no great heights of insight or originality, Mr Lewis's and Mr Gardiner's books are useful and, taken together, interesting. Mr Gardiner's is essentially a tactical study; the author tells us that he himself had no very marked policy criticisms to make of Mr Heath, and he came late to the Thatcher side. But his account of the manoeuvres of Mrs Thatcher's camp between November and February is gripping. Mr Lewis, as becomes one of the Conservative Party's most vigorous ideologists, places her in her intellectual context, showing carefully what it Margaret Thatcher: A Personal and Political Biography Russell Lewis. (Routledge and Kegan Paul £2.95) Margaret Thatcher: From Childhood to Leadership. George Gardiner MP (William Kimber £3.95) really means to say that she is right-wing, explaining the slow decline and fall of Mr Heath in terms of the abandonment of the bright dreams and certain ideas of 1970, and demonstrating that Mrs Thatcher, in 1975, has a, ready-made and well worked out economic and political philosophy — of free enterprise and sound money — already prepared for her by such politicians as Mr Powell and Mr Biffen and Mr Ridley and such academics as Professor Alan Walters and the members of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

In the course of describing how much more thoroughly the Conservative supporters of freedom and opposition to collectivism are prepared than in 1970 Mr Lewis makes two striking remarks about Mrs Thatcher. First, he says, "In fact, by choosing Mrs Thatcher the Conservatives have given a clear signal that the me-too response to socialism is not for them. Self-reliance and personal independence have been her most consistent themes down the years, and she herself is a living and thriving example of what these qualities can achieve." His point here is that Mrs Thatcher, though an exceptionally intelligent woman, is no intellectual or philospher: the values and ideas she stands for are bred into her bones, and for that reason she is more likely to hold to them in power than Mr Heath, who had his ideas worked out for him by others, did to the principles on which he was elected. Second, says Mr Lewis, "The widespread enthusiasm which her election aroused was partly due to her novelty and partly to her striking looks, but more than all else, it was due to her being the embodiment of many hopes."

The feeling, among all her critics and some of her friends, that Mrs Thatcher has not quite lived up, in the last six months, to the euphoria which attended her triumph is partly to be ascribed to the exceptionally difficulty of her situation, to the fact that her party was deeply divided•and a section of it determined to deny her the opportunity her victory gave her. It is also, however, to be ascribed to the exceptional extent to which she was, and is, the embodiment of many and large hopes. For women, for Conservatives who feel that here is a last chance to rescue an identity for their party, for all those of all classes and in all parts of the nation who believe that only the values which she represents can save their country, she became in a matter of days the focus and symbol of a crushing number of aspirations: and I doubt if she realised the range and depth of those aspirations, and the massive burden they would impose on her.

For she is essentially wholly lacking in the kind of free-wheeling personal arrogance that mars Mr Heath. "There is so much I don't know", she said just after becoming leader, and the impressive thing about her then was that she knew what she did not know: she has none of that protective self-regard which has caused so many politicians of recent years to pretend to expertise and knowledge which they do not possess. Then, her leadership so far has been not only marked by the necessity carefully and quietly to repair the ravages of recent years while improving her own grasp of things, but also by the spirit in which she entered the campaign, one of duty, not of glory-seeking.

To her modesty and resilience, however, she adds her own strong and unforced humour. Mr Healey is only one of those who have felt the savagery of her tongue — it is not since Mr Macmillan that the Conservatives have had a leader who so relishes attack — but there is a self-deprecating touch to it as well. At one of the IEA's excellent lunches, at which the virtues of the free market system, and of

competition and enterprise, are preached, a former Conservative member denounced the

academicism of the proceedings, saying, "Try preaching monetarism to a lot of middle-aged ladies in flowered hats. It can't be done," As a preface to taking his defeatism apart Mrs Thatcher began, "Speaking as a middle-aged lady who likes hats .. . ", thus neatly using her cartoon image, which she detests, to make a puncturing point.

Of course, as Winston Churchill once observed, the greatest political difference in the world is between being not-leader and being leader. When she was being hammered by the press over the hoarding story Mrs Thatcher discovered, as she had not even during her troubles at the DES, what the pressures are like when you are out in front. The pressures and the hopes and the hates are even greater now, not only from enemies, but from former friends who feel that because she has not done this, or spoken out on that — because.she has not dotted the I's nor crossed the 't's of the particular ideology they favour — she has been a disappointment. But she has been playing herself in, and I would be astonished if the autumn did not see her deploying her powers of argument and invective on a wider range than ever before, and with such power as to still all criticism of her. But the best hope that Margaret Thatcher will fulfil those hopes of which she is the embodiment lies not in what she thinks, but in what she is — resilient, careful, gifted, humorous and a patriot.

I was foolish enough to say in a broadcast in 1971 — heavily quoted in Miss Margaret Laing's biography — that Mr Heath would break rather than bend, and he promptly began to behave as though he were made of rubber. Mrs Thatcher is a more substantial being, with a growing and greater appreciation of the immensity of her task: I have greater confidence in saying that she will neither break nor bend.