Michael Brown: What Lady Thatcher and Mr Major should be told

'Their endorsements have made the life of whoever wins even more difficult than it was going to be'
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The Independent Online

There was great excitement in the Brown (senior) household yesterday morning. My telephone rang at 8.45am with my mother reporting on the latest developments on the war inside the Conservative Party. I asked her whether she had heard John Major fighting the battles of the past against Baroness Thatcher on the Today programme. "No, we've been too busy deciding the future; we've just received our ballot papers in the post," she replied.

I reminded her to watch the Newsnight debate that was to take place last night. "Oh that's far too late for us. Anyway, we've already voted. Father's just gone down to the Post Office to send the completed ballot papers back."

Anything to do with elections that involves party activists is usually done early. Until he retired, my father commuted from Arundel to London, and never trusted the trains to get him back in time to get to the polling station. So we would always vote, in general elections, one minute after the polls opened. Similarly, he would certainly not contemplate waiting until the September deadline, because he does not trust the postal service.

Dyed-in-the-wool Conservatives who have had enough of this protracted campaign have probably already cast their votes. I suspect that there are many thousands of completed and returned voting papers now back at the Electoral Reform Society's offices. Only those Tories still away on holiday are likely not to have marked their ballots yet. This means that the regional hustings, which began in London yesterday and are taking place during the next three weeks, will have little impact on the outcome of the ballot.

"How did you both vote?", I inquired of Mrs Brown senior. "Oh, I can't tell you that. The instructions say it's got to be kept secret." It is a great pity that the party's grandees and former prime ministers did not also take this spirit of secrecy to heart. The impact which either the interventions of Baroness Thatcher and John Major have had on swinging votes from one candidate to the other is, I suspect, minimal. In both cases the effects may even have been counter-productive. I have already been picking up signals that party workers are becoming resentful of Tory MPs writing to the letters columns of the broadsheets commending one candidate while predicting doom in the event of victory by the other.

But the intervention of Thatcher and Major has reminded us of the difficulty for both candidates in escaping from the worst of the Tory past and moving forward with a fresh start. Mr Major prefaced his comments by saying that he did not want to discuss the past, "but since you ask", went on to give an action replay of the Tories' version of the Thirty Years War. He described the parlous state of the economy he inherited, with inflation out of control, high unemployment and sky-high interest rates – under Thatcher – which, he said, only came down after he took over. But who was Chancellor of the Exchequer when all this was happening?

For much of this radio interview we were treated to a rerun of the bloodletting of a previous era which threatens to overshadow any prospect of the Tories moving forward. By the end of this contest, so much blood will have been spilt that only a transfusion will be able to save the new leader and the party from certain death.

Was it really necessary for either Thatcher or Major to relive their versions of the past in such gory detail – often with a certain rewriting of the facts? The Lady described Ken Clarke's views on the role of the state as stuck in the past. "Such views have done their damage." But was it not Thatcher who rightly promoted Mr Clarke to the Cabinet to attempt the early health and education reforms under her government?

And when Mr Major paid lip service to the Thatcher achievements "from 1981 to 1987 – implying that things went wrong after that, has he forgotten that it was after 1987, when he joined her Cabinet – that he was to play such a prominent part in those final disastrous years of her reign as he rose to Foreign Secretary and Chancellor?

The truth is that the intervention of neither former prime minister has added anything to the prospects of party unity. If anything, their endorsements have made the life of whoever wins even more difficult than it was going to be already. To have Thatcher's support wrapped around him will be more of a millstone than an asset for Iain Duncan Smith if he wants – as I think he genuinely does – to reach out to those beyond the Tory party. Margaret Thatcher has so far, in previous leadership elections, anointed both John Major and William Hague. Much good it did them. It was therefore notable that Mr Duncan Smith has played down her endorsement. The last thing he wants is to be hampered in reaching out to the younger generation that cannot even remember Thatcher as Prime Minister.

Similarly, it does Ken Clarke no good to be too closely associated with John Major's government, which is still perceived to have been a disaster. The more we are reminded by Mr Major that Mr Clarke was a central figure in his government, the more there is the perception of guilt by association. True, Mr Clarke was an outstanding Chancellor, and history has been unfair in its judgement of the manner in which the Major government managed the economy. But this leadership campaign should not be the vehicle, by proxy, for Mr Major to set right the record of his government – at least, not if he really wants to help Mr Clarke.

Actually, I am slightly more optimistic about the prospects for Tory unity than may appear justified by recent events. There is a certain inevitability about flesh wounds being inflicted during even a good-natured contest. The one salvation lies in the fact that the newly elected leader will be "owned" by the party members, rather than by the MPs. This means that any subsequent troublemaking by MPs and grandees will be seen to call into question the decision of the wider party membership, who will resent such attacks.

The biggest danger for the winner will be if the losing sides in the parliamentary party refuse to knuckle under and accept the decision of the membership. If Mr Clarke wins there will still be a desire to make trouble among the most implacable of the Eurosceptics. And if Mr Duncan Smith wins, he can expect the Europhiles to be similarly difficult. In addition, there is the "a plague on both your houses" attitude from wounded Portillistas such as Francis Maude, Nicholas Soames and Archie Norman, who look like being a new "third force" in Conservative politics.

The nightmare for the new leader is that, under the current rules, any combination of 84 these potential malcontent MPs can, still, oust him in a parliamentary motion of no confidence before the next election. For his own security he should capitalise on his mandate, from the membership, to ensure that any threat of removal is removed from the rules. Otherwise, I fear we may be repeating all this before too long. And that really would be the end of the party.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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