Political Commentary : Mr Heath paid dearly for asking a silly question

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TUESDAY is the 21st anniversary of the strangest election of modern times. There was a miners' strike. There had just been a three-day week. The Prime Minister, Edward Heath, went to the country on one issue: "Who governs Britain?" Yet the Parliament could have lasted till July 1975. The Government had an adequate overall majority of 15. It was at no stage made clear what the re-elected Conservative administration would do with an increased majority, if it obtained one.

These questions perplexed Norman St John-Stevas too. Just before the decision to hold the election was taken, Walter Annenberg, the United States ambassador, gave a dinner party where several ministers were present. With Margaret Thatcher, St John-Stevas (now Lord St John of Fawsley) had been opposed to an early election, but "we had come around to accepting its inevitability". At the dinner he mentioned to Lord Carrington, the chairman of the party, that he had changed his mind. Carrington, who was one of the chief urgers of an election, advised him to tell Heath.

The Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, was also at the dinner. St John- Stevas put to him the question which was never satisfactorily answered: what difference would it make if they did have a general election? After all, they already had a working majority. Whitelaw replied sapiently: "We'll be in a different ball game."

This reply was, in a sense, slightly surprising. For Whitelaw was and always had been opposed to the election. He thought, as he later wrote, that the contest was a "grave risk" to the new Northern Ireland Executive which he had helped create. He had been brought back from Ireland, against his wishes, for the specific purpose of seeking a solution to the miners' dispute. He had been "swept" into a campaign which he "dreaded" and he was "bound to dislike a confrontation from a failure to find a settlement". In retrospect, he realised that there had been only one choice: to give in to the miners, but to accept the Trades Union Congress's offer of January 1974 to restrain other unions from following their example. His great mistake, he later confessed, was not to oppose 7 February, the date which had originally been urged on Heath, but to surrender over 28 February, the date on which the election was held.

Those chiefly responsible for the first of the 1974 elections were Carrington; Jim Prior, his deputy; Douglas Hurd, Heath's political secretary; and William Waldegrave, who had recently arrived at the political office at No 10 from the Central Policy Review Staff, or Think Tank. In December 1973 Hurd, Waldegrave and other youthful advisers produced a paper for the Prime Minister. They said that a settlement of the coal dispute on the miners' terms would be in manifest breach of the Government's incomes policy and would not be possible. It would destroy its authority; likewise the morale of the Conservative Party "beyond hope of restoration" within the remaining lifetime of the Parliament. The practical difficulties of holding an election in these circumstances would be great but "doubtless they could be overcome". It would be a "highly charged", even "violent" election and would be "impossible to confine to any one issue". The government campaign would be "credible" only if it included proposals which would "bring to an end the industrial action". Alas, "it is not easy to see what these would be".

Despite this regrettable omission, the advisers at No 10 continued to press their case. The arguments for an election "fairly early next year" were becoming "very strong". On 18 December 1973 Hurd recorded in his diary:

"Slowly the band wagon for an early general election is beginning to roll - but EH, so far as one can gather, still unconvinced."

Heath never was really convinced, which is why the election took place on 28 February rather than on the 7th, the date those who wanted the election favoured. On Sunday 13 January Heath met party officials at Chequers and seized gratefully on a number of practical difficulties in the way of 7 February. On the same evening a group of senior ministers divided: Carrington, Prior and the forgotten Chancellor, Anthony Barber, were on one side; Whitelaw and the always pacific Robert Carr on the other. A non-decision was taken not to have an election. Carrington believed that on 16 January - the deadline for calling the election on 7 February was 17 January - Heath was prepared to call an election but that Whitelaw took him out to dinner and changed his mind.

On 22 January Heath and his parliamentary private secretary, Tim Kitson, walked into a dinner of the party whips. Three times a year the whips dine together away from the House. Once a year the leader joins them. On this occasion Heath asked each to express his views on whether there should be an election. They were not much help. Seven were against, seven in favour. But Cecil Parkinson, then a whip, felt at the time that Heath did not want to call an election at all. Hurd wrote subsequently as if Heath had indeed not called an election rather than - in Hurd's view - called one at the wrong date:

"Mr Heath, backed by two or three of his wisest colleagues, looked more widely and came to a different view . . . The Prime Minister's decision was one which I regretted. But I respected greatly and now respect even more [he was writing in 1979] the reasons for which he took that decision."

These reasons were that the opposition was under "appalling leadership", that he did not believe that a modern Conservative Party should fight an election aimed mainly at the trade unions and that, in Hurd's words, "truth was great and might still prevail". But an election was fought and lost. Perhaps the most striking vignette is provided by that under- estimated chronicler, Prior. Late in the afternoon of 17 January (the final day if the election was to be on 7 February), he went to see Heath at No 10. He records this exchange:

Prior: If it's any consolation, I'd like you to know that all the Labour members were coming up to me in the tea room to tell me that we have let them off the hook. They're throwing their hats in the air - they haven't been in that kind of mood for weeks.

Heath: It's all your bloody fault. If you hadn't allowed Central Office to steam this thing up, we would never have got into this position.

Prior: If you had told us definitely that you were against an election, it wouldn't have been steamed up.

Having asked a silly question, Heath received a silly answer: Labour 301, Conservatives 296, Liberals 14, Ulster Unionists 11, Others 13. Entirely properly - though there were criticisms at the time - he refused to resign immediately and tried to form an alliance with the Liberals. The attempt being unsuccessful, he resigned on Monday 4 March. Harold Wilson, greatly to his surprise, found himself in No 10 once again, to inaugurate the last period of Labour government we have known.