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Release of MT's private files for 1986 - (3) politics after Westland

Westland had many implications for MT, short and long-term. She may have hankered “to get back to ‘normal’ problems” (as she put it to Robin Butler on 29 Jan), but that was not an automatic thing, it would have to be achieved

Post-Westland: not politics as usual, or hegemony and its discontents

Oct 1986: draft conference speech with MT annotations

A series of crises followed closely on Westland, all of them influenced by her sudden vulnerability. All were surmounted too, but one can make a good case that her position remained fragile and that conditions were far from ‘normal’ until late in the year, well into the period when the likely proximity of the next election conferred a certain protection on her as the Conservative party's electoral self-interest forced at least the appearance of unity.

In one respect perhaps, normality came a little quicker. Her instinct was always to take the initiative, to fight on the front foot. She had been deprived of that option during Westland, as she saw it, and the result had given her a fright. Instinct reasserted itself speedily enough, encouraged by tactful but purposeful handling on the part of those who knew her best, staff in Downing Street.

It seems to have been quietly understood that her confidence needed rebuilding. Michael Alison brought encouraging reports of conversations with parliamentary colleagues (“in good heart … basically unperturbed about violent, but essentially ephemeral Westland storm”, 14 Feb). Ingham played perhaps the biggest role here, seeking briskly to move things on, and seeing also that she was unusually malleable to new approaches at this point. Briefing her on 14 Feb for BBC1's Panorama, her first big TV interview after Westland, he skilfully wove his themes. “The crucial thing is to show the public that you are still fit and well, in charge, and determined as ever. All the commentators will be looking for signs that you have been marked or changed by recent events”. She needed then to show “a steely, but slightly underplayed and lower register resolve which leaves the impression that you have been reinforced and toughened by the Westland business”. Westland itself he glossed as evidence of the emptiness of her opponents, one of a string of assaults on her reputation, such as Oman and the Belgrano, revealing “the poverty of the Opposition who all along the line are seen to be adjusting to Tory policies; their only hope is to destroy the person”.

Ingham’s was a shrewd approach in several ways. It surely gave her some comfort to fasten on the unfairness of it all, to believe her enemies had been playing the woman rather than the issue. And there was an important truth lurking. One of the reasons she survived Westland, and survived as long as she did, almost five years longer, was that she had become, or was fast becoming, an emblematic figure, the embodiment of huge changes in Britain, for good or ill, so central that it was hard to imagine political life without her. It made every sense to stress this point. An instance is a meeting on 10 March to discuss her forthcoming Central Council speech with Bill Deedes and others, which set out the theme with clarity and power: “We have moved the whole centre of politics”. Ingham spoke of "your domination of current politics and intellectual argument", a very plausible assessment.

The Italian marxist, Gramsci, had a word for that phenomenon: hegemony. The term is often used of politicians and ideas, but rather less often truly applies. Perhaps in MT's case it was beginning to, raising the issue: how do you contain the power of such a person? It is reasonable to think her colleagues had begun to wonder.

'Presentation': vision, caring and human interest

Rebuilding Prime Ministerial confidence was not the whole story. There was a determined drive in No.10 to use the moment to bring about some long-desired changes in what you might call the product itself. Ingham followed up his Panorama briefing a week later with an important minute titled “Language/Vision” (Ingham 20 Feb). Offering as a straw man a managerial future of the kind supposedly favoured by Douglas Hurd, the Press Secretary sketched his (and likely her) preferred alternative. She should focus on responding to two big problems, or needs: to maintain the flow of ideas/sense of initiative and “to outline your aims for the future in a new and more appealing language; this requirement is summarised by the, to you, hateful word ‘vision’: I doubt I can make this more acceptable by expressing it in marketing terms – i.e. the need to repackage your achievements, aims and aspirations”.

‘Vision’ did not win through, as a word, though she did use it in her speech to Conservative Women’s Conference on 4 Jun, pointedly quoting John Betjeman:

I have a Vision of the Future, chum,
The workers flats in fields of soya beans
Tower up like silver pencils, score on score:
And surging millions hear the challenge come
From microphones in communal canteens
"No right! No wrong! All's perfect evermore".

Obviously that was not what Ingham had in mind, though the substance of his point was never going to be difficult to persuade her of and perhaps for that reason the fight over that word was not pursued. You can see her problem with the word, judging from the poem, but she did occasionally bring herself to use it in a positive way, for example, her interview with John Timpson on the ‘Today’ programme on 9 July.

Instead there developed a potentially harder fight for the word ‘caring’, which MT had long resisted using. And there the result was very different. The first sign of a breakthrough came with the Scottish Conference speech on 16 May (see file 5/1/4/111) where she was persuaded to use language by Ian Lang, a wettish Scottish Tory MP, Michael Alison contributing on similar lines. The speech included a section headed ‘Caring’ which used the word ‘care’ no fewer than fourteen times. Its introduction took a somewhat aggressive form, framed as an attack on opponents “never slow to claim for themselves a monopoly of care”. And care was glossed as an active virtue, not a soft rhetorical thing. “Surely, caring is what you do, not just what you say. And those who talk most aren’t always those who do most”. We are not a million miles from her famous remarks about the Good Samaritan. But still, something important had changed. MT had been persuaded to cross an important divide.

The Party Conference speech in October saw the emphasis repeated. There is a memo by an occasional adviser, Bill Davis, on 24 Aug on “The ‘Caring’ Theme”, which plainly influenced the speech. MT made annotations on a draft which revealed her new willingness to use the word (10 Oct). Sherbourne framed the idea succinctly: “I should think few politicians care more about the future of Britain and wanting to see the British people succeed than you. To show you care, you must not talk about caring in any sloppy or sentimental way” (26 Spt, 1/1/34). The final speech included a section titled “Conservatives Care”, emphatically claiming the territory though in a more oblique style than the Davis draft with its machine gun repetition of the word - oddly reminiscent of Australian PM Kevin Rudd’s 2008 national apology to the Aborigines.

Not everyone around her thought well of the new departure. Advice from advertising company Young & Rubican, vying with Saatchis for the Conservative account, warned against compromising the party’s reputation as being the only one capable of strong, competent government “in order to give the party a more caring image” (7 Apr, Young & Rubican research). Nor was it easy to turn caring into a publicity programme. In late June No.10 began an initiative to improve the quality and number of “human interest” stories involving the Prime Minister, but evidently there were plenty of media difficulties and it is far from clear they achieved much they weren’t already doing. (See uploaded minutes on this topic by Ingham and others, 19 Jun -10 Jul.)

Oct 1986: plans for the third-term

In the relaunch that took place after Westland the Conservative Party Conference speech in October was always likely to play a special role, because it provided a powerful opportunity to demonstrate that Prime Minister and Party were full of ideas and energy for a third-term. Indeed, likely it would be the last conference before the next General Election. Post-Westland there was a strong political case for moving the agenda on, beyond the urgent work of economic recovery which had dominated the first two terms.

Symbolically enough unemployment stopped rising in Jan 1986, the very month of the crisis: for many opponents Thatcherism had been defined by joblessness, but the performance of the labour market now began to become a strength. And plainly with a stronger economy there was an opportunity (in fact a need) to focus on reform of public services and quality of life – issues like education, health, crime, the environment. In one form or another this thought recurs throughout 1986, culminating in the speech. See, for example, Ingham minute, 21 Mar (in 5/2/202) talking of the “purpose and ethos of a wealthier society”, “a people confident and caring in their capitalism like the best Victorians were”. The theme is reflected in papers written for an election planning session at Chequers on 13 Apr 1986, especially one by the new head of her Policy Unit Brian Griffiths (11 Apr). MT's notes on the session itself suggest a discussion in which people seem to have spoken quite bluntly. Popular capitalism and the spreading of wealth feature in this mix of ideas, as in Bill Davis's contribution to her conference speech, linking privatisation, wider share and home ownership, even the “Big Bang”. There is also a valuable note by the previous Policy Unit head John Redwood on 9 May, which like the Chequers meeting puts a rather negative gloss.

One should mention here No Turning Back, a pamphlet published in Nov 1985 under the auspices of the Conservative Political Centre, a semi-official party body which promoted discussion but whose output stopped short of policy. It was authored by a group of backbenchers many of whom became ministers, Michael Forsyth to the fore. Their work was very much encouraged by the IEA’s Ralph Harris, as correspondence shows. MT met the authors for a buffet supper at the IEA on 4 Feb 1986, not the least of her post-Westland outreach initiatives. From her point of view, at this moment, what could be better than discovering Thatcherite zeal and forward thinking in the next generation of Conservative MPs? In her October speech she aimed to make good. Leaping a generation was to play an important role in her thinking about ministerial appointments in years to come.

There are many files on the speech. Aside from “Not for turning” in 1980, the 1986 conference speech was probably her most important in terms of political substance. Yet it is not much remembered. The 1984 speech had of course the drama of the Brighton bomb, but it was far less programmatic, indeed the bomb caused revisions that emptied it of wider meaning.

A fair comparison could be made between MT in 1986 and Gladstone exactly a century before. Like her, by 1886 Gladstone had wearied his colleagues, stayed longer than they expected or wanted, and consequently hit trouble. Like her, he survived and fought back, kicking his heels and leaving his troublesome frontbench in the dust by embracing a new agenda (Irish Home Rule). Lord Randolph Churchill brilliantly captured the moment by dubbing him “an old man in a hurry”. Modify age and sex, and you have a fine description of MT in Oct 1986. She had a fresh sense of political mortality, and it energised her.

 

 

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