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MT's private files for 1988 - (2) leadership and the "fourth term"

For all the time they took up, Parliamentary quarrels were finally no more than distractions for MT. The Conservatives had a Commons majority of 101.

The flip side of backbench dissent and mutterings about dictatorship was almost universal acknowledgment across the political spectrum following the 1987 general election that Thatcherism was here to stay. Onwards and upwards was the policy.

PARTY STRATEGY: A NEW LOOK AT LABOUR; NO CONSTITUENCY FOR THE 'CONSOLIDATORS'

MT notes on document by party chairman, Feb 1988:
"our first real attempt at Party 4th term strategy""

There is a tide in the affairs of men, and it was running her way. She was more than ready to make use of the fact - painfully conscious of the urgency of doing so - and the machine around her thoroughly understood that. On 5 Feb she was looking at a paper from Central Office about tackling Labour over the coming year which she described as “our first real attempt at Party 4th term strategy”. It is intriguing, and a mark of new thinking on her part, that she was critical of the paper for not acknowledging that Labour’s positions were shifting in response to Thatcherism.

This really is a surprising element in her approach to Labour at this point and surely will have wrong footed the authors of the paper. She thought it was no longer enough to talk about union bosses running the party, for example: Eric Hammond (the Electricians' union leader who had helped bring Nissan to Sunderland), immediately popped into her mind as a counterexample. She did not believe the Conservatives should press Labour to come up with alternatives to “on every issue which our radical, reforming policies are tackling”. “We need to be a little more subtle than that”, she countered. "I should have preferred our first real attempt at Party 4th term strategy to be positive".

You had to be nimble to keep up with her. She had always been an energetic leader, to say the least, but there was something more than that by the third term, or perhaps one might say after Westland when she had been caught on the defensive and nearly lost the premiership. It is as if she thought safety required her never to stand still, always to be pushing forward. Like Gladstone a century before, she was leaving her own generation of leaders behind, looking to secure longevity by continually scouting out new territory. It was very much a theme in 1988.

There was more party strategizing in the summer recess. At the end of July Party chairman Peter Brooke submitted a long paper examining in some depth public attitudes to the parties and their policies as revealed by polling. Comfortingly it noted "the great strength of our position", and particularly the weak position of the centre parties, one of which (the rump SDP) he rightly expected to fold. It did not shy away from Conservative weaknesses, many of them long-standing: low public regard for the government's record on health and education, belief that it was unfair, divisive, encouraging selfishness, "(m)isunderstandings and fears" of the Community Charge. Whether MT would have accepted this or not, his conclusion certainly chimed with hers: "we must continue to harness the desire for radical change: the 'consolidators' have no constituency".

1988: WILL YOU RUN AGAIN?

Talk of a fourth term – implicitly talk of her fourth term – was for private consumption at this point. She had avoided the topic even in private immediately after the 1987 General Election. When Charles Powell had written to her the day after the poll urging her not to put herself through it again, she had told him she did not yet see any possible successors and left it at that. But there was intense pressure now for her to answer the obvious question: will you run again?

In her newspaper interview with Brian Walden in April she came very close to answering the question. Are you going to run again in 1991 he asked? “Well, I hope so, I hope so” she answered. And in 1995? It’s not up to me, she replied. I have to be reappointed leader of the party. Then she laid down the conditions under she envisaged stepping aside, one day:

I do not hang on for the sake of hanging on. I hang on until I believe there are people who can take the banner forward with the same commitment, belief, vision, strength and singleness of purpose.

And this she linked explictly to the emergence of new potential leaders, a younger generation of Conservative frontbenchers:

There will come a time when people will say: ‘Well, she has had a good run and, look, there are these several young people who could be leader’.

There were some in the older generation who did not want to hear her say that. One was surely Norman Tebbit, who features frequently in the files for 1988 under watchful, wary eyes from No.10. Tebbit was probably the only potential successor to MT who could ride as successfully she could what you might call the wave of realignment, someone who could credibly claim to embody the new politics and to have helped make it, rather than simply adjusting to it or exploiting its arrival. But, obviously enough, sharing the mantle with the Prime Minister was a potentially fraught business.

In January Tebbit was approached to give the inaugural lecture of the Radical Society, founded by former MP Neville Sandelson and Prof Stephen Haseler, ex-Labour and now ex-SDP people who had rejected the Alliance merger. (Also on its committee were a clutch of big names of similar pedigree - Brian Walden (again), Dick Marsh, Frank Chapple, with Jo Grimond announced to lecture too.) Tebbit carefully wrote MT to explain what he intended to do, not quite asking permission but promising to keep her informed. Archie Hamilton annotated the letter: “Spoke 19/1. Said go ahead. He understood there wd be nothing in writing”. Ingham noted how delighted Sandelson was to have signed him up. At the end of April Hamilton saw Tebbit to discuss his coming memoirs, evidently a tense conversation. Hamilton broke the news to MT that they would be coming out two or three days before the party conference “for crude commercial reasons” (she underlined the phrase) and noted Tebbit’s determination to respond to the account of the 1987 General Election recently given in the Nuffield study by David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh: “with a certain amount of menace, he promises to put the record straight in his book”. Hamilton concludes: “I asked him for an advance copy, which he was not enthusiastic to give me, but I intend to keep in touch with him over this”. In the event, one should record, the book caused little or no difficulty for MT, though a note on 6 December shows that a second political book from him was being mooted.

Ingham also followed Tebbit’s progress closely, frequently reporting his doings in the daily press digest sent to MT first thing. There were many speeches from Tebbit during the year, on an impressively wide range of topics. The press often speculated about Tebbit’s leadership hopes and potential, and indeed at one point about his closeness to Lawson and supposed willingness to support a possible Lawson premiership (“bloody rubbish” was Tebbit’s response to that story).

Selection of documents mentioned on this page

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