Heath hints he might join a Tory-SDP coalition
By Julian Haviland and George Clark
Mr Edward Heath, the former Prime Minister, accepted yesterday that Conservative MPs might join the Social Democrats and Liberals in government after the next general election and that he might play a role if Mrs Margaret Thatcher was unacceptable. There might be invitations which he could accept, he said.
Mr Heath was being questioned on television about Mrs Shirley Williams’s overwhelming victory in the Crosby by-election on Thursday. He said the result was a major triumph for Mrs Williams and for the Social Democratic and Liberal Alliance. It was the birth of a new party, and Conservatives had better recognize the facts.
When asked if he would ally himself with the SDP at the next election, if Government policy was unchanged, Mr Heath was firm. He intended to stay with the Conservative Party, in which he had worked for 45 years and would try to make it share the ideals which he and so many others had.
But senior members of the SDP who heard Mr Heath said they believed they had been listening to a potential ally.
The SDP leaders talked unblushingly yesterday of forming, or at least helping to form, the next government. In Exeter, Dr David Owen said the alliance was now the biggest political force in the country.
Mr Heath, speaking on independant [sic] television, said the Crosby result “shows that we have alienated a very large number of people”. He thought that party spokesmen could not dismiss what had happened. “Governments and parties like to make the best of these things ”, he commented, but added: “You can't kid the electorate. The electorate knows what it has done.”
Mr Heath was asked if he could foresee left wing Conservative MPs joining with the SDP to form a government after the next election. He said the question was hypothetical, but when asked if he would be interested in a role, replied: “I’m prepared to help my country wherever I think I can be of service. There might be invitations . . . which might be acceptable.”
He recalled the Labour Party’s insistence in 1941 [sic] that, as a condition of their joining a national government, the Conservatives must drop Mr Chamberlain and that Mr Churchill must be Prime Minister. “So it has happened in the past,” he said, “and it could happen again”.
Mrs Williams, who was Secretary of State for Education in the last Labour government, returns to Parliament on Tuesday only two and a half years after her defeat at the general election, as the twenty-fourth SDP member and the first to have been elected in the colours of the new party.
With the Liberals, who have 12 MPs, the alliance has a combined strength of 36 and may have a couple more members by the end of next week.
The Conservative majority at Crosby in the general election of Mav, 1979, was 19,272. The declaration of the poll early yesterday showed a majority for Mrs Williams of 5,289 - the biggest turnover of votes in British electoral history. Her punishment of the Labour Party was no less severe. Labour's 25.4 per cent. of the vote at the general election was reduced to only 9.5 per cent, and their candidate lost his deposit.
The Social Democrats have never been so genuinely confident as now. They have, all along, been worried that events might move too fast for them, with electoral tests coming before they were prepared.
They still need a year before their party can be fully fledged. They plan a constitutional conference next February, agreement on their constitution perhaps by Easter, the election of a leader in Parliament and a president next summer, and election of the policy-forming council, which they hope will meet next October. Only then will they be fully equipped with social and economic policies.
But the lesson of Crosby, and of their successes in council by-elections, they believe, is that the public are happy to take them on trust, and to vote for them, even without knowing where they stand on many major questions. The accusation which other politicians most often level against them, it seems, has no power to harm them.