Commentary

Key personal & political events

1974 Oct 16 We
Commentary (The Times)

Conservatism: "Tories must look before they leap into line behind a new leader" (Bernard Levin) [Conservative leadership candidates]

Document type: commentary
Document kind: Article
Venue: -
Source: The Times , 16 Oct 1974
Journalist: Bernard Levin
Editorial comments: -
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1,529
Themes: Conservatism, Leadership, Conservative (leadership elections)

Tories must look before they leap into line behind a new leader

Bernard Levin

And so to the Conservatives. What a cowardly rabble they can be when they set their minds to it! It is clear that, barring a catastrophe that would in, any case sweep the Tories back to power even if they were led by, say, Mr, Maurice Macmillan, the present Government is going to be in power for two or three years. That being so. common sense, which demands that they take their time over the question of the leadership, fits perfectly with opportunity, which says that they have plenty of time to take. Yet before the final result was in, the curs were yelping, led by little Mr Winterton, Lord High Uvula to the Ted-Must-Go choir. You are the hare of whlom the proverb goes. Whose valour pIucks dead lions by the beard.

And he is not the only one either. But assuming (a large assumption) that there are enough men of sense and weight in the Tory Party to stop them from throwing . Mr Heath overboard at least until they have discovered whether there, is anybody else among the crew who knows the dif ference between starboard and a marlinspike, or even until they have decided which way they want to go, there should be time for the dust to settle, and for Mr Heath's qualities and position to be soberly evaluated, not least by him.

For the Tory Party, before getting out of the hole it is in, might do we1l to stop and wonder w,hether it knows of a better one. Indeed, let us wonder on its behalf. Mr Maudling being ruled out, and Mr Eaoinoigh O'Powhoill being gone over the water (and me never suspectin' that hinrself was the bhroth of an Irish lad, at all, and that he was afther being a friend of the Little People since he was no higher than one of them, and the way of him, at all, and the Irish lilt of his voice, at all, and his ashplant and his tveeds, at all, and his mam comin' from Car rickfergus and his da from Clonakilty, and nobody knowin' of it until he toild us, the shy one that he is, and sure but he's lost to us for ever until Brian Boru himself wakes from his long sleep, and there he'll be, our Eaionoigh, with Caitlin ni Houlihan and the Shan Van Voght, at all, and the starlight in his eyes on the hills, and Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone and Pearse and Connolly, or have I got it wrong, well, no matter for that, for I'll be in good company if I have, at all, and him aftlier leading' Ireland to glory, at all, and I think I'll be afther havin' done about enough of this now, bejasus), six names have been men tioned, since it was clear that the Tories had lost the elec tion, as possible successors to Mr Heath, the names being, in no particular order, Whitelaw, Carr, Thatcher, du Cann, Soames and Joseph.

Mr Whitelaw is what might be called the peace-and-quiet candidate, the amiable fellow whom nobody could dislike and who only needs a sprig of holly in his hair to be mis taken for a Christmas pudding. Choose him, the argument runs, and the nation will rush to his warm and kindly embrace as to that of a favourite uncle. Unfortunately, something rather more is required for a party leader these days than a benign and sootlhing demeanour. Apart from intellect, something like a recognizable political philoso phy would be a distinct advantage: would anybody care to write down, on one side of a sheet of paper, just what it is that Mr Whitelaw stands for? You may reply that Sir Alec was not precisely a combination of 'the Brain of Britain and Disraeli, but it wvould not be the happiest of examples, since the point of Sir Alec's tenure of office was that Mr Wilson ate him alive, in Parliament and out. Mr Whitelaw would be cut to shreds in a montlh.

Mr Carr, then ? Well, he wvould be the first Identikit picture to become leader of the Conservative Party, but he would do it no good. Nobody, from one end of the country to the other, has ever heard of Mr Carr, and if he becomes leader and remains leader for 40 years, that will remain true. Mr Carr is a decent and intelligent man, but tested by the reliable Piffl-Pforzheim method, his personality runs clean off the scale on the minus side.

That, at any rate, is not a charge that can be levelled at Mrs Thatcher. Pause there, Margaret, And weigh thy value with an even hand ... What if I stray'd no further, but chose here ? To start with, there's precedent for it; Mrs Meir, Mrs Bandaranaike and Mrs Gandhi may not be the greatest national leaders the world has ever seen, but none of them has done notably worse than her male predecessors, and Mrs Thatcher is a gifted and practical politician, whose formidable strength of character belies that Dresden appearance. She would need time to accustom the people to the oddity of it, but time is the one thing the Tories do have. And yet I do not think' they will do it, and I am not certain that they would be wise to. The male chauvinism of the people of this country, particularly, the women, is still dreadful, and her sex would be a severe handicap. Beside, there is the too-cool exterior (if only she would burst into tears occasionally) ; if the voters would not warm to Mr Heath, they are unlikely to warm to Mrs Thatcher, and there is no point in the party jumping out of the igloo and onto the glacier.

There is Mr du Cann, of course (the part will be played, in the forthcoming film of his life, by Mr Valentine Dyall), but I trust the suggestion was not intended serious ly. There is Sir Keith Joseph. the most interesting of the contenders, with by far the most coherent and distinctive philosophy, but the Tories would have to be quite sure that they want to change direction sharply, and there is as yet no sign that they do. There is Sir Christopher Soames, but that choice would mark a disastrous return to a bygone day. The Tory Party is already dangerously classified, in far too many minds which it has to reach to succeed, as being out of touch with the needs and wishes of millions who may not understand what sort of world we live in, but are quite certain, even If only by instinct, that it is not the world of Sir Christopher Soames. God bless the squire and his relations; full speed astern to the Two Nations.

What the Tory Party needs desperately is to think. To think about its nature and its future, its failure and its intentions, its image and its search. But instead of being content that the election defeat was not a rout, and settling down. to the long debate that must precede the choice of a new leader (since it is surely wise for a traveller, however intrepid, to decide what continent he wishes to explore before hiring a guide, lest he appoint an Eskimo to take him across Equatorial Africa), the only thought in their minds is to get rid of Mr Heath, who is still by far the most able man they have. He does, of course, seem to lose an awful lot of elections; but would it not be a good idea if the Tories were quite sure, or even moderately sure for that matter, that any possible successor at present would be better in that respect ? I have never been able to understand why all those brigadiers and colonels in the Tory Party, who were so steady under real fire on the beaches, instandy lose their nerve and run for cover when they come under sham fire on the back benches. Can the Tories not understand that there is no hurry, and that a mistake now could not be put right until it had damaged the party almost, if not quite, beyond repair?

And there is another consideration, perhaps the most im portant of all. Do the Tories believe their election arguments or do they not ? If they do, then they believe that terrible times are coming for this country, and that the present Government will be quite unable to cope with them. Will not the people then turn to the man who told them as much, who would not lie either about the situation or the remedies, and who went down to defeat speaking the truth to the last? I think it quite likely that they will. Is this a time to over throw such a man and replace him by someone clearly his inferior? A year from now will be time enough for him to step down, if step down he must. But a year from now the hurricane will be blowing.