WED 06 DEC 1989
Victory with just a dent
In the end there was something for everybody. For only 60 MPs to withhold their votes from the Prime Minister when there were 68 unhorsed ex-front bencher s participating and another 97 Tories in Parliament who, for at least 10 years, have never been offered the whisper of a job under the present management marked a fair achievement. But it was no triumph.
”She'll be pleased with that, and rightly,” said one rebel. “But it gives her something to think about”.
Loyalists rejoiced that Mrs Thatcher had taken 84 per cent of the votes available and said that if that was the best her opponents could do when the party's fortunes were at their nadir she had little to fear. Opponents scoffed that with a candidate standing against her virtually without status or policies, there had been no real test. And they saw the number of abstentions as significant, given the Tory habit of loyalty and the pressures to conform. But it was an election, Tories were saying quite early on, that the Prime Minister could only lose. The first challenge to her leadership in 15 years, together with her own shilly-shallying on whether she intends to go ``on and on'' and fight a fifth election, have destroyed the former aura of invincibility.
The contest has focused attention on the criticisms that Mrs Thatcher is somehow “out of date”, that the time for her confrontational style has passed, that she has made Britain isolated in Nato, in the European Community and the Commonwealth. It has ensured that for the first time people at all levels of the Conservative Party are seriously asking: “Are our chances at the next general election better with her or without her at the head of the party?”. Once one challenge has been made, a lesser effort of will is required for another.
The contest has also underlined that the Tory divisions over Europe are deep and likely to damage the party for a long time. The European Monetary System issue can only get worse from next July.
But Mrs Thatcher's prospects will probably depend less on her own endeavours than on the decisions taken on monetary policy and interest rates over the next six weeks by John Major. If the pound plummets, inflation rises again and interest rates are raised yet again, the Tories will be in real crisis. In the immediate future we can expect a rallying round. A number of cabinet ministers wanted to roar to Mrs Thatcher's support over the past fortnight. They were discreetly reined in and urged to keep quiet for fear of having the hierarchy accused of overkill in its efforts to preserve her. They will now be encouraged to start rebuilding the Prime Minister's image and the party's unity.
While some would feel that yesterday's total of 60 votes withheld from Mrs Thatcher marks the start of a process leading to a more serious challenge to her next year, many dissidents think that chance has gone. Next year, they were saying last night, is too close to an election and the party is in too much trouble already to afford the 12 months of unsettling intrigue that would be involved.
The other thing that can be expected now is a discreet move within a few weeks (too soon would like like panic) to change the rules, requiring anybody who wishes to challenge in future to have the support of a number of MPs some say 25, some say 40 (as in the Labour Party).
For some who withheld their support from Mrs Thatcher it is enough that a protest has been lodged, a warning has been given. Some too accept that their desire to see someone else leading the party is more likely to be fulfilled if they assist a prime minister who has already won three elections to fight another.
Dumping a prime minister in those circumstances, some argue, would never be understood by the electorate. Besides, Mrs Thatcher, they are sure, would fight all the way any attempt to deny her that chance. The fight would be a bitter one and some believe that the outcome, if she were defeated in a bloody struggle, would be to make the party virtually unleadable. The Praetorian Guard of hard-edged young Thatcherite believers, they say, would make life impossible for a Heseltine or a Baker who had wrested the job. But if she is allowed to fight another election, they believe, she may well decide whatever she says now to bow out gracefully in the next parliament. That would prevent Labour fighting the next election saying, “Vote Tory and you don't know who you'll be getting.”
Older dissidents who have had their chance on the front bench and do not like the management that dumped them are being told: “It's all right for you. You can stump off to your retirement home or to the City. We have a political career ahead of us, and that requires a united party capable of winning elections”.
Significantly, some of those working for a good result for Mrs Thatcher this time are prominent wets who would like to see Chris Patten figure in the next leadership contest. The same goes for those who hope to see John Major develop into a more centrist rival to him. And the fact that Mrs Thatcher was not terminally damaged in this contest makes it likely that Sir Geoffrey Howe's hopes of leading the party, which depend on a contest before 1992, are fading and that the Tories may well end up leapfrogging the Heseltine/ Baker generation when it finally comes to choosing the next leader. The next generation is coming into play.