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Release of MT's private files for 1985 - (3) Conservative malaise after the strike

While the ending of the strike proved to have big advantages for Labour, it seemed to have the opposite effect on the Conservatives.

1985 Feb-Jul: half-way

Top people don't come cheap: Ingham's press digest, 17 Jul 1985

Beating Scargill removed an external pressure that had served as a prop to discipline, opening (or revealing) internal divisions, particularly but not exclusively on economic policy. It is hard to imagine a Westland style crisis at a time when the government itself was under mortal threat.

The end of the strike also shifted the political agenda back onto familiar and unhappy territory for the government. Commenting on the budget to Whitelaw, Ingham noted on 20 Mar: “Recognising many constraints, the Budget was on the whole well received, though many commentators indicated that it would ultimately be judged by the movement of unemployment over the coming year. This underlines Ministers’ belief that with the coal strike out of the way, public attention would focus much more clearly on unemployment”.

In February 1985 MT celebrated her tenth anniversary as leader of the party. Talk of the succession became a more or less natural topic, and not merely among her critics or even principally. What no one knew at the time was that the anniversary almost coincided with a second important date: that very same month she reached the half way point of her premiership.

Edward Du Cann was one of few to wrote her a letter of congratulation and his was of a singularly demoralising kind, lamenting that others in the parliamentary party were not as supportive as him: “I just wish ‘the boys’ were universally warmer in your support at present” [THCR 1/3/15 f104]. She seems otherwise to have heard mainly from friends like Tim Bell rather than colleagues. These things mattered to her; she observed anniversaries closely herself. Coincidentally there is note in her files about Airey Neave, written on the sixth anniversary of his murder in March 1985 which reads: "you said you wished to send flowers to his grave whilst you remained Prime Minister".

Norman Tebbit made his return to frontline politics in the New Year, writing MT a warm letter of thanks on 7 Jan for her support during his convalescence, and that of his wife Margaret (who did not recover use of her legs of course). They had stayed with the Thatchers at Chequers over Christmas. Talk of him as a possible successor to MT began immediately (8 Jan Press Digest) and he made speeches during the year perceived as attempts to broaden his base. By the close of 1985 they were seriously out of step on two vital issues: the ERM and Westland.

Private as well as published polling showed the Conservative party’s falling badly for much of the year, moving into third place in May (Lab 34, Alliance 33.5, Cons 30.5). By early July (3 Jul Press Digest) the position was far worse: NOP in the Mail on 3 July gave Labour 42, Alliance 33, Conservative 23, MORI the following day (the day of the Brecon by-election) worse still - 46, 28, 24. The seat was lost of course. Electorally her party looked to be back where it was in 1981, before the Falklands changed everything.

1985 July: near defeat in the Commons, friends rally round

This was the background to one of the worst backbench rebellions of the entire Thatcher period, a crisis now forgotten but toxic at the time. The government accepted recommendations from the Top Salaries Review Board (TBRB) that awarded very large pay rises to high-ranking officials – e.g., 46 per cent for top civil servants. Ingham’s press digest on 19 Jul must have made painful reading, MT underlining the comment: “You will pay for it as you did for Clegg”. The Conservative majority fell as low as 17 and would have been wiped out entirely if the Labour vote had been effectively whipped. (Douglas Hogg voted against his father’s pay rise, perhaps comforted by the fact that Hailsham had already announced he wouldn’t take it.) As many as 150 Conservative MPs were reported to have contemplated rebellion, a majority of backbenchers, the number supposedly only brought down by a planted rumour that MT would resign if defeated (according to the Sun) or the threat that she would call a General Election (as the Mail had it).

Two days later Michael Alison wrote her a long, awkward letter of encouragement (30 Jul), evidently intended to buck her up and revealing of how low her mood had fallen. Gow had several times written her letters of this kind in his time as PPS. Did such things really help? Perhaps, but did Alison have to compare her with Moses? She won’t have forgotten that Callaghan once received a similar accolade and that she advised him to keep taking the tablets. When later she talked of going “on and on”, it wasn’t thirty years in the wilderness that she had in mind.

A few other old friends wrote her encouraging letters around this time – Stephen Hastings and David Eccles – possibly on Alison’s suggestion. The word seems to have got around, so that even relatively junior figures formed the view that her mood needed lifting, Michael Howard writing in June and July. When Robin Butler left No.10 to return to the Treasury, his farewell letter on 4 Aug included the following passage:

If there is one thing I am sad about, it is that I am leaving you at a time when people have been getting at you so much. But I console myself by thinking not only that politics are always full of ups and downs but also that your achievement and stature throughout the world are already proof against short-term fluctuations of this sort. I hope that thought will comfort you and that, after a rest in Austria, you will come back refreshed and invigorated to carry on

There is some evidence that she was telling friends and staff at this time of that she might stand down before the next election, the kind of thinking John Coles noted immediately after the 1983 General Election in a memoir of his time at No.10 we published last year. (Immediately after winning a majority of 144 seats she had told him “I have not long to go” and “My party won’t want me to lead them into the next election—and I don’t blame them”.) When John Gummer was removed from the party chairmanship in early September he wrote (2 Spt):

Apart from producing an aide memoire for my successor – my last duty as chairman is to say to you as forcefully as I am able that you ought not to entertain thoughts of the kind you raised latterly with me. You are the key to our election victory and our only danger is that you should cease to believe that.
Decent people don't find it easy to fight for themselves. They would be inferior characters if they did. They can battle with the enemies of their country and their principles but it comes hard when they need to fight on their own behalf. Sometimes therefore they need to be reassured that their own success is essential for the victory of the cause in which they most believe. Your work is not yet done and we need your confidence in your own leadership to complete it.


Next page - September 1985 reshuffle