Tory consternation over leak of party report on unions
Mr Healey accuses the Conservatives of seeking revenge for their electoral defeat in 1974
By Fred Emery, Political Editor
Some of the Conservative high command responded yesterday with private consternation to the leaked account in The Times of their “top secret” party report assessing a future Tory government’s position with trade unions in possible industrial confrontation.
Their dismay was more over the political damage than the substance of the report. The way The Times presented it, wvith emphasis given to the party's presumed inability to “defeat” the unions, was seen as reviving in 'telling form the accusation that the Labour Party would be bound to recycle duriing the forthcoming election campaign: that the Tories could not be trusted to handle the unions.
Mrs Margaret Thatcher, leader of the Opposition, banned public comment by those inlvolved in preparing the report. During an outing in High Wycombe yesterday she confirmed the existence of the report, produced for her by Lord Carrington, “to see if we could learn anything from the 1974 emergency.”
She added that she had learnt “such lessons as are to be learnt”, but declined an invitation to make an on-the-record statement to The Times about the party report.
On the board [sic] issue raised, she said: “Of course we could work with the trade unions. To insinuate otherwise would be to insinuate that the trade unions are not democratic, and I am not willing to do that.”
On the Labour side some ministers promptly bolstered Conservative apprehensions that The Times report had gratuitously handed back to Labour the political initiative it had supposedly lost since the new year and the revived immigration debate.
Mr Denis Healey, Chancellor of the Exchequer, went so far as to see the Tories out for “revenge” for their 1974 debacle. But the Prime Minister demurred wvhen asked at question time by Mr Bryan Davies, Labour MP for Enfield, North, to consider the “sinister news” of the Opposition’s destructive planning. With affected mildness. Mr James Callaghan said the Conservatives simply did not understand the unions, and he did not know whether they were sinister or naive.
Mr Callaghan answered Mr Norman Tebbitt, [sic] Conservative MP for Waltham Forest, Chingford, that he would be happy to hold a seminar on relations with unions for the Conservative Party. He gave some free advice in passing. On the whole the Conservatives tended to be too aggressive when they should be accommodating and too timid when they should be bold. Mr Callaghan said.
The Prime Minister’s invitation to Mrs Thatcher to publish the Conservative report had already been rejected.
It emerged yesterday that the shadow Cabinet as a whole was unaware of the report. Much as in any Prime Minister’s Cabinet, only those with direct responsibilities for emergency contingencies had joined in its preparation.
However, some of those with knowledge of the report complained that the issue was being overdramatized. It was contended that The Times had been inaccurate in two respects; first, the Carrington group had not adjudicated Mr Edward Heath’s personal role in 1973-74; secondly, it had not been concerned wvith sketching scenarios either for defeating unions or for surrendering to them.
It had, completely responsibly in the view of those familiar with it, set out to try to learn the lessons of the 1973-74 crisis. And its conclusion was that a clash with unions should be avoided wherever possible. That, one insider remarked sardonically, might lead to more complaints from the Tory right than from the Labour left.
It was objected that publication would either reveal a Thatcher Cabinet’s potential strength or demonstrate its vulnerabilities. In any case, some aspects of the report, presented to Mrs Thatcher nine months ago, were already outdated.
Some senior Conservatives, furious over the leak, speculate that some of those businessmen or former senior civil servants who are reported to have given evidence to the Carrington group mav have been responsible. But it remains that the group’s conclusions were known only to very few Conservatives.
Mr John Biffen, a former member of the Shadow Cabinet, is to speak on the Conservative attitude towards trade unions on Thursday. He said yesterday that he had not changed his prepared text as a result of The Times report.
But he said he had been rather bewildered by the disclosure of the Carrington report. The fact that businessmen, of all people, had been asked their opinions when, he said. they would always advise settling a strike was to him surprising. Mr Biffen suggested that an opposition had no resources for the sort of contingency exercise attributed to Lord Carrington’s group; they ought to have waited until they got into government.
A Staff Reporter writes: Mr Healey, speaking yesterday in the Lambeth, Central, by-election campaign, described The Times report as the most disturbing he had ever read. The committee appeared to have been set up with the purpose of organizing revenge for the last Conservative Administration’s defeat by the miners, by using the Armed Forces to win a confrontation with the working people of Britain.
He said that Mrs Thatcher owed it to the country to answer four questions about the report; they concerned its contents, its terms of reference, the committee’s membership and the identity of the businessmen and retired civil servants who had given evidence.