It was one of those emotional moments that stir the loyalties of Britain's conservative "knights of the shires,” and their blue-rinse ladies in tailor-mades and hats. As Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher opened the Conservative Party’s annual convention in Blackpool last week on her 56th birthday, delegates sang her into the hall with the traditional “Happy birthday to you.”
The mutual affection was short-lived, however. A festering revolt in upper Tory ranks over Thatcher’s economic policy led to a public display of a lack of confidence that has not been experienced by a Tory prime minister since a back-bencher challenged Neville Chamberlain in 1940 with the words once used by Oliver Cromwell: “In the name of God, go.”
At week’s end, rumors flared that cabals were looking for a credible challenger for the leadership. Former cabinet minister Geoffrey Rippon, named as a potential challenger, coyly acknowledged that if the government failed to change its deflationary course a leadership challenge is a possibility. Suddenly the governing party was facing the stark likelihood that the next election, long thought unlosable to a splintered Labour opposition, could now be unwinnable.
Against a rising tide of company bankruptcies (6,223 in the first nine months of 1981, against 4,726 in the same period last year), unemployment nudging three million and a stock market crushed by the credit squeeze, Thatcher last week was a prime minister at bay. Even small business is in revolt: one poster conveyed the message of decline with a photograph of the shuttered and decaying corner grocery store in Grantham, Lincolnshire, once owned by Thatcher’s father.
But the beleaguered prime minister made no attempt to conciliate or heal, much less offer hope on industry and jobs. After hearing out her critics—former prime minister Edward Heath and two of her own ministers among them — she rose defiantly to deliver her customary admonition. Unemployment, she charged, is largely due to unearned wage increases. The failed remedy of reflation would not ease the situation, Thatcher added. And people should abandon the “mistaken belief that, come what may, the government would always step in to bail out companies in difficulty.”
Those words fell on deaf ears in British Leyland plants. There, workers were voting in droves to strike even as Thatcher sat down. The workers reached their decision in defiance of BL chief Sir Michael Edwardes’ solemn threat to close the car giant—and with it, inevitably, large chunks of the component-manufacturing Midlands—if
they failed to accept an almost invisible 3.8 per cent pay offer. And while Thatcher’s unyielding performance may have rallied hard-core activists, some of the best-known names in her government are ranged against her.
Certainly the rift between Thatcher and the moderate majority in the party appears unbridgeable. Patrician Sir Ian Gilmour, sacked recently from Thatcher’s cabinet, prophesied that unless policies were changed, “We can say goodbye to the British economy.” Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine and House of Commons leader Francis Pym—often seen as a dark-horse leadership candidate—placed themselves firmly among the critics: the elegant Heseltine with an impassioned appeal for the jobless in cities torn by riots last summer, and Pym with the quiet assertion that “of course” alternative policies should be considered.
On Friday, however, as Thatcher put the finishing touches on her wind-up speech, the Financial Weekly, a normally vigorous drum-beater for freewheeling enterprise, delivered a body blow. In a front-page editorial headed THE THATCHER DISASTER, the paper launched a devastating personal attack: “The nation is not to be sacrificed to one party, let alone to the blind stubbornness of one politician and the rubber backbones of her flunkeys,” it fulminated. Slightly misquoting the historic invective used against Chamberlain, it too urged her to go in “God’s name” and added insult to injury by suggesting that she should become ambassador to Washington. In the end, it looked as though the City of London financiers were already turning to the new Social Democratic-Liberal alliance. Thatcher, however, was undeterred. She contemptuously dismissed the fledgling party as the failed “soft centre” of politics.
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