In the wake of Davis’s resignation a show of strength is neededby Peter Kellner / July 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
“Voters don’t like divided parties.” We can confidently expect that point to ricochet round parliament and the media following David Davis’s resignation. It is often true: Conservative divisions on Europe brought down Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and almost brought down John Major three years later. But past party leaders have sometimes overcome party divisions and even flourished. If Theresa May is to survive as anything more than a wounded, cornered prime minister, she needs to learn from them.
On 6thJanuary, 1958, all three Treasury ministers resigned from Harold Macmillan’s government. The prime minister wanted to increase public spending. The Chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft, together with Enoch Powell and Nigel Birch, profoundly disagreed. In his resignation speech to the House of Commons, Thorneycroft could scarcely have been more direct: “The simple truth is that we have been spending more money than we should… It is not the sluice gate which is at fault. It is the plain fact that the water is coming over the top of the dam.”
Macmillan ignored this warning, pursued his expansionary policies and dismissed the resignations as “a little local difficulty.” His sangfroid was widely mocked; but he had the last laugh. At the following election, less than two years later, his decisive leadership was rewarded when the Tories returned to government with a majority of 100.
Margaret Thatcher had her own little local difficulty in September 1981. Her cabinet contained some prominent “wets”: moderate one-nation Tories who opposed her free market, low tax, trade union-curbing agenda. She moved against them by sacking Ian Gilmour, Mark Carlisle and Christopher Soames. A fourth “wet,” James Prior, was moved from the Department of Employment to Northern Ireland. He was replaced by proudly right-wing Norman Tebbit, who relished the chance to curb the unions.
Again, Thatcher was eventually rewarded for the decisive leadership, and routed those who said the Tories could never win an election by deserting the centre ground. Helped, admittedly, by the Falklands war six months later, and a recovery in the UK’s flagging economy, she led her party to its biggest post-1945 victory in 1983.
Neil Kinnock was never prime minister, but he, too, ended up the beneficiary of divisions in his party. The far left, ranging from Tony Benn to Militant, had sought to undermine him from the day he became party leader in 1983. Two years later, he took them on at the party’s annual conference in Bournemouth, famously attacking the Militant leadership of Liverpool City Council for “the grotesque chaos of a Labour council—a Labour council—hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.”
Less well remembered, but equally important at the time, was Kinnock’s speech the following morning, when he attacked Arthurs Scargill and the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers, for the way they had brought about the year-long miners’ strike which had collapsed earlier in the year.
If ever was a party consumed by divisions, this was Labour in October 1985. Yet Kinnock’s poll ratings rose sharply. Gallup recorded a rise of almost ten points in Labour’s support in one month.
The moral from these examples is clear. Party divisions undoubtedly cause difficulties for party leaders. But those difficulties do not last when leaders make clear their intentions, execute them decisively and defeat their opponents.
Can Theresa May copy Macmillan, Thatcher (1981) and Kinnock, and not be undermined in the manner of Thatcher (1990) and Major?
The obvious lesson is that she needs to bring the simmering differences in her party to a head in open battle—and then win that battle. Can she do this? Only if she abandons the tactical caution of the past two years, stops trying to survive day-by-day, and ends the pretence that her Brexit strategy can command the support of both wings of her party. In short, she needs to show that, contrary to the evidence of recent months, that she is a strong, risk-taking, clear-headed leader after all.
No, that’s not what I expect either. It is more likely that, sooner or later, Brexit will bring her down. But we should be clear that the real threat to her leadership is not her party’s divisions but her own weakness.
Now read: Will Brexit break the Conservatives?