Mrs Thatcher looks ahead to second ballot ‘on the basis of cautious confidence’
After hearing that she had come top of the poll in the first ballot for the election of the Conservative Party leader, Mrs Thatcher was still cautious yesterday about her prospects in the contests to come.
In the committee room at the Commons where the election had taken place earlier she was calm and not unduly jubilant.
She began, almost as though she was at a constituency sale of work in the village hall, by thanking “my small band of voluntary helpers”. She included Mr Airey Neave , MP for Abingdon, her astute campaign manager, Mr William Shelton , MP for Lambeth, Streatham, Sir Keith Joseph , MP for Leeds, North-east, her personal secretary and Miss Joan Hall , former Conservative MP for Keighley, who has been helping with the secretarial work.
“We are very pleased indeed with the result of the first ballot”, Mrs Thatcher said; “It is a very good basis on which go forward to the second contest. We believe that our vote will remain firm in the second ballot and we hope to attract a few more. On the whole, we go forward on the basis of cautious confidence.”
She said she did not think that her sex had anything to do with the result. “We have carried on our campaign successfully so far and we shall continue to do so. …” At this point the clatter of camera shutters and other equipment drowned her words.
How did the actual result compare with her prior soundings in the party? “It is a little bit above our cautious hopes”, she said, “but we are very, very cautious in our estimates”.
Had she any theories on why those hopes had been exceeded? “I am not interested in theories”, she said bluntly. “I am only interested in where the crosses go.”
In answer to another question she said that she had avoided giving any pledges or making any bargains with her parliamentary colleagues in order to gain votes. It was suggested that many Conservative MPs were panicked into voting for her because of the “euphoric Heath campaign” which seemed to indicate that Mr Heath would sail to victory.
“I have been amazed at some of the things I have read in the press, but it is always very interesting”, she said.
Why, it was asked, had she forgotten to mention as one of her helpers Mr John Gorst , MP for Barnet, Hendon, North, who was known as one of the leading lights in the new Middle Class Association? Mr Gorst was sitting at the table and looking more contented than anyone in the room.
“He is my next-door parliamentary neighbour”, Mrs Thatcher replied without any sign of embarrassment. The implication was that she was promoting the Conservative Party as a middle-class-oriented party. She did not accept that, but she was willing to concede that Mr Gorst was one of her band of faithful workers.
Some of the Conservative backbenchers had been intensely annoyed by what they saw as the intervention of the Conservative Party “machine” on the side of Mr Heath . Had she any comment to make on that criticism? Mrs Thatcher merely replied: “My own voluntary effort has been excellent and has achieved wonderful results”.
She explained that her campaign for the second ballot would be somewhat curbed by her duties as chief frontbench spokesman on the Finance Bill, which is in committee.
“We have a second and third ballot to go through”, she said unguardedly. Did that mean, someone immediately asked, that she did not expect to win on the second ballot? “I do not know”, she said. “We have taken them one at a time.”
When there was hesitation about another question, she quipped: “I don't want to stifle questions. I may not have the same chance again.” As for the other candidates, she could not answer for them.
When Mrs Thatcher was asked about the Young Conservatives, the Women Conservatives and others in the party who had declared firmly for Mr Heath, she said: “I have 130 votes today. That is what counts. The next thing which counts is, how many votes we get on the second ballot.”
After radio and television interviews, Mrs Thatcher took her seat as principal Conservative spokesman on Treasury and taxation affairs in the standing committee considering the Finance Bill. She was cheered by MPs on both sides. Mr John Gilbert , Financial Secretary to the Treasury, was cheered when he said it would be churlish not to congratulate Mrs Thatcher on the result.
Mrs Thatcher followed up an attack on the capital transfer tax, asking the Government to remove certain “obnoxious features” of the tax which would seriously affect the disposal of property within a family. In the ensuing division the Government fought off the challenge by one vote. This was at 11.30 pm and it seemed likely that the committee would sit until the early hours of today.
Mr Peter Rost , MP for Derbyshire, South-east, was one of the Tory backbenchers who overnight had criticized the pressure which they said had been exerted by the “party machine” on constituency association agents. But Mrs June Parkinson , agent in Mr Rost 's constituency, stated: I have heard the statement which Mr Rost has made … and I categorically deny that I have ever indicated that pressure was put on me by Conservative Central Office, because I am employed by them, to influence the views of the constituents of South-east Derbyshire.
Obviously, the leadership of the party has been discussed in conversation between agents but no pressure has been put on me by Conservative Central Office nor has anybody from the Central Office telephoned me to ask me to use any influence I might have.
Mr Rost said last night: There is no question of my criticizing my agent. I fully appreciate that MPs have more independence to express their views than paid officials of the party. I am aware that my agent, following a telephone call from the chairman of the party this morning, made a statement which could be interpreted as a partial denial of what I have said. I must leave it to people to draw their own conclusions.
I would just add that all day senior colleagues and ordinary Conservative backbenchers have been coming up to me and confirming that they have had similar experiences to those I described. They also have evidence of the lack of impartiality in the way Central Office has been gathering the opinions of the rank and file. I know that senior members of the party are supporting me and would wish to have this further debated because it raises an important matter of principle regarding the independence, not just of members of Parliament but also of constituencies and their agents in the party organization.
Mr Hugh Fraser , the candidate at the bottom of the poll, said after the declaration: I congratulate Margaret Thatcher on a remarkable win. I have fought the campaign not so much for votes as for principles, and I am now withdrawing from the contest.
I have succeeded in widening the debate, which was my object, and I shall of course do all I can to build up a broad-based and radical Conservative Party to win the next election.
A senior member of the party not wishing to be quoted, confessed that he had faithfully stood by Mr Heath in the first ballot but since he did not get a convincing vote of confidence his vote would be given to Mrs Thatcher at the second ballot.
Mr Richard Body , one of the leading Conservatives against membership of the European Economic Community, said: “The result is a measure of the frustrations within the party and there is no doubt in my mind that from now on a great deal of rethinking is going to be done on a wide range of important matters, especially those on which the Conservative Government turned turtle after 1970.”
(2) Guardian, 5 February 1975
The heiress on a tightrope
Under the television lights of Committee Room 14 beneath the picture of the English fleet pursuing the Spanish out of Fowey, Mrs Margaret Thatcher stood looking extremely bewildered. She has spent more time than she might have wished these last few days under the yoke of camera and microphone, listening to constituency woes, breakfasting with the family, tramping incongruously over the building sites—but she was hardly prepared for the scrummage which formed around her now.
The reporters fired their questions over the heads of the television and radio men jostling to get closer. It was, unusually for Mrs Thatcher, a rather sticky occasion. The questions came slowly. She answered them all with a steady smile but said very little. She hoped to hold her present voters and recruit new ones. She was deeply grateful to the team which had worked for her, some of whom were around her now. She looked forward to the next round with cautious confidence.
What did she think Mr Heath would do now? That was not a matter for her. Who did she think would run against her? That was not a matter for her either. It was for other candidates to make their own choices. Wasn't she worried that constituency opinion was against her? “I have got 130 votes today,” she said with a flash of spirit, “and that is what counts.” Had she expected to get them? The previous day, her supporters had talked of forcing a second ballot and building on that—not of capsizing Mr Heath at the first encounter. But the mood of the contest, said one of her backers yesterday, had changed during Monday. The constituency count had been counter-productive. MPs had simply not believed the great tide of support for Mr Heath which the soundings reported. They did not believe they could be representative: they did not square with the evidence of their own ears.
There was resentment too over an evening paper report reviving the image of the 1922 Committee executive as a Milk Street conspiracy sneakingly convening to stab the leader in the back. According to one MP, the bandwagon which appeared to be rolling for Ted had settled the issue for Maggie: one look at the prospect of an outright Heath win, and all the anti-Heath factions began to move behind her.
Mrs Thatcher was asked how the result compared with her canvass. It was a little above their figures, said Mrs Thatcher very cautiously—but then they had made a very, very cautious assessment.
She looked pleased, but apprehensive. There were a lot more microphones and flashing lights ahead. And this was not a day which could be marked off for celebration. What was on her mind, if on no one else's, was the committee on the Finance Bill. There had been lunch in the City before she came to the House, taking expert advice on the provisions coming up for discussion. There was a speech to prepare. In the circumstances, she had allowed herself the luxury of a “pair” for the afternoon session; until then, she had not missed a single session of the committee, sitting sometimes to two, three or five in the morning.
She was in her room when the electric message came. It was not yet certain that she would be the first woman to lead a great national party: but already she was the first woman to topple a leader from office. Suddenly the House of Commons was swarming with people, all of whom seemed to beclamouring in a dozen languages for interviews. A small room booked for the press conference was hastily abandoned for a larger one, for fear that many present might be squashed to death.
Mrs Thatcher did not betray, even by a flicker, any pleasure in her dispatch of Mr Heath. Out in the corridors, though, some of her band of supporters—a handful of volunteers, they kept pointing out, against the might of Heath's professionals—allowed their bitterness to break through. The vote had shown, they said, that MPs were not to be bullied as the Party establishment had sought to bully them. They were not to be frightened by the summoning up of a possible retribution from the constituencies. “They have stood up for Ted 's principles.” said a Thatcherite grimly. “They have said: ‘We don't believe in referenda: we decide these things for ourselves.’”