The Independent Archive 7 August 1987: Talk of the doctor `doing a de Gaulle'

It is generally conceded that David Owen is a man of political clout. But he would not be the first politician of standing to opt for the Westminster wilderness
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THE DELIGHT of the current power struggle for the soul of the Social Democratic Party is the sheer openness of the process. Back-stabbing has been replaced by front-stabbing. But there is now so much gore on the battleground that it can be difficult to disentangle the entrails.

Nevertheless, certain conclusions can be drawn. David Owen will remain outside any new party that will be created. David Steel will end up with a new party, without David Owen. That new party, which will include Lord Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers, and the vast bulk of the party's existing 58,000 membership, along with the Liberals, will be both radical and uncompromisingly anti-Thatcher.

Because Dr Owen will not belong to the new party, it might eventually come to some form of anti-Tory agreement with the Labour Party, but probably not during the lifetime of this parliament. Neil Kinnock is adamantly opposed to proportional representation, never mind an electoral pact. No fundamental realignment of the centre-left can therefore be expected before the next election.

If that election brought a hung parliament, Mr Kinnock and Mr Steel, untrammelled by Dr Owen, would be more likely to reach a working agreement. On the other hand, the leader of the Labour Party can sometimes be as intransigent as Dr Owen, so it is entirely possible that British politics might end up where it started.

The simplest scenario, now that a majority of votes has been cast by SDP members in favour of merger, begins later this month when the SDP meets at Portsmouth. Although Dr Owen yesterday resigned from the SDP leadership, he is being unusually quiet. It is suspected by some leading Liberals that he will use Portsmouth to repeat his principled policy arguments against a merger.

The Liberals will then follow, with their assembly at Harrogate in the middle of next month, and a ballot of their membership. The SDP's governing Council for Social Democracy would then be required to endorse the winding up of the party with a two-thirds majority at its meeting in January. One-third plus one vote would still be enough to jettison the arrangement, and Dr Owen will fight with all his might for that result.

But, as The Independent reported yesterday, the pro-merger group would then pack up and elope with Mr Steel. The new party would be created regardless. That would leave Dr Owen with a parliamentary and party rump. He could still be left with the money so generously donated to the SDP by David Sainsbury, of grocery fame, the party's expensively located headquarters in Westminster's Cowley Street, a staff depleted by defections, a meaningless computerised membership list, and his firm commitment to an independent nuclear deterrent.

All of that can, and has been, anticipated by Mr Steel and Dr Owen's SDP opponents. Certainly, it is volunteered that there can be no question of the new party being a quick "respray" job on the Liberal Party. The changes to be made in the new party will be designed to give it a fresh image, a new "chemistry" which will attract new members in the same way that the original launch of the SDP did back in 1981.

Which leaves the good doctor, so endearingly described this week as "that sonofabitch" by one of his former senior Liberal colleagues. It is generally conceded across the Westminster spectrum that David Owen is a man of political clout. But he would not be the first politician of standing to opt for the Westminster wilderness.

There is a great deal of talk of the "doctor doing a de Gaulle", and waiting for the call. But as Dr Owen said in June: "I am a Social Democrat and I intend to remain a Social Democrat. There are lots of things for me to do. You don't always have to be leader of a political party." Yesterday, his leadership was just one of the sad casualties of the battle.

Anthony Bevins

From `The Independent', Friday 7 August 1987