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…