After the election, the Tories can have their much-needed row about tax and spending

There is still an eager audience for Howard Flight's views among Tories who seek a much smaller state
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Finally a consensus breaks out amongst the warring ministers who were in the Cabinet led by Jim Callaghan. Since the announcement of Callaghan's death at the weekend, they have hailed the way he led his divided Cabinet through the crises of the late 1970s. From the left, Tony Benn notes approvingly that he always got a hearing in ministerial meetings. David Owen, who helped to form the SDP, also looks back on Callaghan's chairmanship of the Cabinet with glowing admiration. Cabinet meetings went on for hours, sometimes days, but with considerable guile Callaghan kept them altogether.

Finally a consensus breaks out amongst the warring ministers who were in the Cabinet led by Jim Callaghan. Since the announcement of Callaghan's death at the weekend, they have hailed the way he led his divided Cabinet through the crises of the late 1970s. From the left, Tony Benn notes approvingly that he always got a hearing in ministerial meetings. David Owen, who helped to form the SDP, also looks back on Callaghan's chairmanship of the Cabinet with glowing admiration. Cabinet meetings went on for hours, sometimes days, but with considerable guile Callaghan kept them altogether.

Callaghan had no choice in the matter. Although a powerful political personality, he was not in a strong enough position to click his fingers and tell his ministers to shut up and follow him. For most of the time his government had no majority in the Commons and was split at least three ways on all the big issues of the day. Callaghan's only option was to let the clashing ministerial voices speak and then steer meetings subtly towards the conclusion he sought in the first place.

It was during this period of sweaty, nerve-jangling, never-ending Labour cabinet meetings that Margaret Thatcher declared her intolerance of internal dissent. She would lead from the front and expect others to follow. As leader of the opposition, Thatcher made it her business to expose the difficulties faced by Callaghan and his divided party. He was weak. She would be strong. Not for the last time she turned a political opportunity into a matter of principled conviction. The Iron Lady established a new fashion for "strong" leadership, one that regarded any debate within a party as a threat that had to be snuffed out immediately. Thatcher was lucky. For most of her leadership, external circumstances allowed her to be strong. She faced a fatally divided opposition, with a significant section of Callaghan's former Cabinet leaving to form the SDP.

Until recently, Tony Blair has been lucky too. When he became Labour leader, his party was so desperate to win an election that it danced obediently to his tunes. Quite a lot of the time, leaders are in no position to be so mighty. In the 1980s, Neil Kinnock tried to be Thatcher-like, but his restlessly awkward party would not always let him get his way. In the SDP, David Owen also sought to be a robust leader but found himself, to his fury, muddling along with the Liberals. In their different ways they were strong political personalities in weak positions.

For the last decade, Conservative leaders have tried desperately to assert their strength and have finished looking weak. There is a curious explanation for this. Ironically, their party has been too disciplined. One of the factors behind Blair's extraordinary command of his party was the battle that preceded his leadership.

After Callaghan lost the election in 1979, the predicted civil war erupted. No one should romanticise the blazing rows that followed. Labour was out of power for 18 years partly as a result of public feuding. But in some form or another, the internal debates had to be held. With the election of Blair as leader, most of the rows had been resolved. Even then, Blair and Gordon Brown were careful to outline the values that would determine their policies. There were endless speeches on the new Clause Four, fair taxation, welfare to work, and productive public spending. It is a myth still believed by some senior Conservatives that the early days of new Labour were driven solely by "spin".

The Conservatives would be demented to regard Labour's wild period in opposition as a model, but they have leapt to the other extreme and had no serious internal debates at all. Before the 1997 election, there was a widespread expectation that a civil war would erupt in the aftermath of defeat. It did not happen. The defeat was so heavy that the remaining Conservative MPs lost the energy to fight.

Even when dissenters stirred, William Hague slapped them down in an attempt to prove he was a strong leader. Iain Duncan Smith did the same, occasionally and alarmingly shaping one of his hands into a pretend gun, implying that he would shoot down those who went off message. What the Conservatives needed was the unfashionable Callaghan style of leadership, in which a leader skilfully chaired a raging internal debate knowing how he wanted it to end.

Instead the Conservatives face the nightmare of Howard Flight speaking his Thatcherite mind at a meeting of fellow Thatcherites on the eve of a general election. There was still an eager audience for his views, because those Conservatives who seek a much smaller state have not put their case and had it contested inside their party. The argument is yet to happen, or not, in the open anyway. I am told that there were intense exchanges at the top of the party over their pre-election plans for tax and spending. Some senior figures put pressure on Howard to announce more sweeping tax cuts.

To his credit, he resisted the temptation and more astutely pledged to re-pay some national debt, enabling the Conservatives to claim they would not face the "black hole" in finances that would force Labour to put up taxes. That is part of the reason why Howard fumed and acted ruthlessly. Flight blew apart a carefully and skilfully constructed package on the most sensitive policy area in a general election.

The question of whether Howard's punishment was too steep is a relatively minor matter. Flight's comments are the latest manifestation of a party that is still "looking for an encore to Thatcher", as one of its frontbenchers, Alan Duncan, put it to me in an interview several years ago (in an attempt to appear strong, Hague sacked Duncan for making an intelligent insight). There have been many manic manifestations: John Major standing down as Conservative leader while remaining Prime Minister in 1995; Ken Clarke and John Redwood standing as a dream ticket in 1997; the election of Iain Duncan Smith in 2001 and his forced resignation two years later. They were all symptoms of a party struggling to define its purpose.

I interviewed Jim Callaghan at length in 1997. As he reflected on his own political life, he noted that some of the mistakes made in the 1970s were committed by a political generation brought up in the 1930s. These leaders - Heath, Wilson and himself - were gripped for the rest of their lives by the social evils of unemployment. To some extent they were still fighting the old battles in a changing world that demanded new responses. As Callaghan implied, it is very difficult for politicians to transcend their political backgrounds. There is a section of the Conservative Party still stranded in the 1980s, posing by its mere existence unresolved questions: Did Thatcherism go far enough? What form would another dose of Thatcherism take?

At the moment, they pose the questions at meetings where one participant is in a position to tape record their answers. Once the election is safely out of the way the Conservatives need to have an almighty public row and resolve these questions once and for all.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

Comments