JUN-AUG 1990: ELECTION PLANNING & THE POLICY UNIT
Keeping open election options
Election planning began seriously during 1990, in part because the timetable demanded it, but also as a political tool. The No.10 Policy Unit under Professor Brian Griffiths took the lead, working closely with Political Secretary John Whittingdale. In fact Griffiths and his deputy, Robin Harris, began making joint submissions to MT with the Political Secretary, never before done in the Thatcher years. Perhaps this reflected the fact that the Policy Unit had struggled on occasion early in 1990 to secure Prime Ministerial attention, papers being sent to her sometimes being returned unread: Whittingdale was a relatively junior figure in a job at one remove from policy-making, but he had ready access to MT.
The political advantages from election planning were clear enough. Announcing the beginning of manifesto work, and involving ministers, MPs and others in consultation as to future policy, made the point that MT was intending to stay around and that she was listening to the party too. It was helpful also that the prospect of a leadership challenge diminished the closer the next election seemed likely to be. If, as in 1983 and 1987, MT chose to go to the polls in the fourth year of the Parliament, the election would fall some time in 1991, probably in the first half of the year. Even if the election was postponed to 1992 (as indeed it was), she would probably have been safe from a formal leadership challenge if she had made it through December 1990.
There was a difficult tactical issue about election planning. Part of a plausible fightback strategy would have been to emulate MT’s recovery from her last serious low-point, the Westland affair in Jan 1986. That autumn’s party conference had seen a mass of policy initiatives and announcements designed to demonstrate that there was plenty of political life in the government, and its leader, the conference acting as a springboard for the next General Election, which came the following year, with very satisfactory results from her point of view.
Should the same be done in 1990? The Policy Unit was attracted to the idea, but it seems MT less so, and the party chairman, Ken Baker, less still. In 1986, the economy had been booming, growing ever stronger. In 1990 the reverse was the case. In fact GDP began to fall in the third quarter of 1990, with a five quarter recession ensuing (i.e., the economy was formally deemed to be in recession after Q4 1990, two negative quarters). There was a risk that laying out the stall too obviously at the 1990 conference would create expectations of an election that could leave her “boxed in” on election dates. Accordingly the announcement of election planning when it came in July was hedged with assurances that June 1991 was an option not a done deal. This low-key announcement was then rendered all but invisible by the resignation of Nick Ridley (on which more below).
The Policy Unit had its own distinctive ideas as to the election agenda, its own fightback strategy. It was looking for “proposals which are (a) populist – appealing to the C2s and (b) in the starkest contrast to Labour’s, so that their hostility will highlight our policies for us” (see the joint submission to MT on 3 May). There was a strong stress on family policy, “where we will need a radical input” not to be found in the party or government machine. A further big package of local government reform was a focus, remarkably enough given the grief it had already caused, work being commissioned on a whole range of papers for submission to MT at the beginning of August when she could be expected more time to read and engage in longer-term planning. The Policy Unit really was unlucky with its timing: Saddam was no more helpful than Ridley, the invasion of Kuwait thoroughly distracting MT from her summer holiday homework.
Serious policy work was being done on some of this agenda within Whitehall itself, and at speed, in 1990. MT delivered a speech on family policy in January and another on women in July, both the work of the Policy Unit. In between those two statements the government machine had evolved plans for what became the child support agency. A note on the January speech draft by Caroline Slocock, MT’s first and only female Private Secretary, records Prime Ministerial caution about making announcements on this topic until the workability of the idea had been established (10 Jan minute). By July she was confident enough to announce the plans, which had been signed off at a ministerial meeting the previous day.
Another initiative involving the Policy Unit was the publication of a book of essays on Christianity and Conservatism, to which MT contributed an introduction and Griffiths a chapter. In theory this was a purely private initiative, in no way a statement of government or party views. But the Unit's emphasis on family was deeply influenced by the faith of its leading members and by the oblique means of this book a rationale for policy was being laid out. MT’s former PPS, Michael Alison, also a contributor, urged her to be interviewed by the BBC when the book appeared (oddly enough by Barry Norman, the BBC’s resident film critic). Slocock put this proposal to MT at a diary meeting in March, commenting: "B. Ingham worries about your forays into religion and morality", much like his successor Alastair Campbell, who appears in MT's 1990 files as the only journalist Ingham trusted at the Daily Mirror and who famously held back Tony Blair's hankering to "do God".
No interview took place. MT's personal faith was real, but also a matter of great reserve, deeply a private matter. She was wary of claiming religious sanction for her views, except when her opponents (particularly leading churchmen like the Bishop of Durham) claimed that her policies were unchristian. Really only for the purpose of rebutting that charge did she seek to ground her politics in religion. That impulse was the origin of her "Sermon on the Mound", for example, as her May 1988 speech to the General Assembly to the Church of Scotland was instantly dubbed, punning on the location of the Assembly building in Edinburgh, a nickname that distressed her in much the same way as the attacks that gave rise to the speech in the first place. It is no accident that she successfully cultivated warm relations with Labour opponents like Frank Field and Eric Heffer whose socialism had evangelical christian roots which she would not for one second have questioned. She valued faith in politics, wherever it was found, and claimed no monopoly.