Two years ago Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party won the most impressive electoral victory recorded by any British party since Labour’s 1945 landslide, taking 397 seats in the 650-member House of Commons. But as it nears the midpoint of its current five-year mandate, the once seemingly impregnable Thatcher government is now showing unexpected and potentially fatal signs of vulnerability. On July 5 the Tories suffered a humiliating byelection defeat in the Welsh riding of Brecon and Radnor. The Tory candidate there went from first to third place, behind the victorious Liberal-Social Democratic Party (SDP)
Alliance and a resurgent Labour Party. Hard on the heels of that setback, a revolt of moderates within national party ranks, led by former foreign secretary Francis Pym, called into question Thatcher’s harsh policy of economic restraint in the face of crushing unemployment. Then, last week the government suffered a serious blow over plans to give large pay raises to top public officials. Faced with 48 rebellious Tory MPs as well as an aroused opposition, the government averted defeat in the Commons by only 17 votes.
The immediate issue was a proposal to increase the salaries of 2,000 senior civil servants, judges and military officers by as much as 46 per cent during the next year. But the Commons vote also exposed the depth of divisions within Tory ranks and reflected popular disaffection with Thatcher’s policies. When the government first announced the pay proposal two week ago, Labour Party deputy leader Roy Hattersley charged that it confirmed that the government had one rule for the rich and another for the poor. Liberal Party Leader David Steel also criticized Thatcher’s “appalling misjudgment” because she has urged low-paid teachers to accept raises of only six per cent. In the Commons vote, only the absence of dozens of Labour MPs, along with the abstention of 50 Tories, prevented a government defeat on an issue of confidence. What shook
the Thatcher government was the extent of disaffection within her own party. Said rebel Tory MP Patrick Thompson of the pay raise: “The government is unfair and indefensible at a time when we are preaching restraint.” Added fellow dissident David Sumberg: “It will haunt the government for the rest of its period in office.”
For uneasy Tory MPs as well as opposition critics, the pay issue was only the latest example of what opponents charge is the government’s inconsistency in living up to its election pledges. Thatcher first came to power in 1979 promising to reduce taxation and public spending. But as her opponents gleefully observed, even the government’s own figures show that taxation has increased by 25 per cent. Despite cuts in educational, health and local government services, annual public spending has soared to $244 billion from $147 billion. And for the first time since the Industrial Revolution of the last century Britain is now importing more manufactured goods than it is exporting. In 1984 the nation posted a trade deficit of $7 billion. Thatcher
and her cabinet insist that the government is on course and that the problem is merely one of presentation. But as London’s influential Financial Times newspaper commented: “The problem is no longer how best to put across the message. It is that it has become exceedingly unclear what the message is.”
At the same time, Thatcher is promoting other measures that have left her government vulnerable to attack from its political opponents. A revision of Britain’s massive social security system, involving cuts of at least $1 billion in benefits from $51 billion, has led to charges by both Labour and the Alliance linking Liberals and Social Democrats that Thatcher is bent on promoting social inequality. Said Labour spokesman Michael Meacher: “The rich are cosseted and the poor are penalized.” As well, Thatcher’s plans to sell off state-owned organizations such as British Airways and British Gas, with estimated combined annual revenues of more than $16 billion, are equally controversial. Charged Labour Leader Neil Kinnock: “The government is selling off our national
assets in order to finance a gigantic tax giveaway.”
Thatcher has vowed to stick to her policies. But unrest has persisted even among Tory MPs who attended a recent meeting with the Prime Minister that was intended to inflate morale. They were still smarting from her recent dismissal of Tory moderates as “flexitoys” who demanded higher government spending to ease Britain’s 13.1-per-cent unemployment rate (5.4 per cent when Thatcher was elected in 1979). Indeed, among the electorate, Thatcher’s abrasive style is becoming a serious liability, as the voters in Brecon attested. The latest Gallup poll confirmed that verdict. Thatcher’s lead over rival Kinnock has slipped by nine points since June. Her current rate is 27 per cent, compared to Kinnock’s 24 per cent and the Liberals’ Steel in third place at 21 per cent.
Much of the credit for Labour’s recovery in public esteem goes to the 46-yearold Kinnock. Disarmingly soft-spoken in contrast to Thatcher’s stridency, he has replaced his party’s extremist image with one of moderation. He has also adroitly outmanoeuvred Labour’s left wing, whose militant socialism repelled voters in the 1983 election. But Kinnock’s claims that Labour will win the next election, expected in 1987, gloss over the party’s current handicaps. Labour’s main liability is disarray in the trade unions, its traditional power base. In the National Union of Mineworkers, whose yearlong strike ended in failure March 3, many workers who crossed picket lines are now considering forming a breakaway union. Analysts say that another potential problem for Labour with the electorate is the party’s avowed intention to end Britain’s nuclear defence option and force the removal of U.S. cruise missiles. The Liberals, with 23 Commons seats, and some SDP supporters favor the selection of a common leader. But SDP Leader David Owen does not, fearing that the larger Liberal Party might overshadow his party. As a result, the parties risk presenting a divided image to voters in the next general election.
For Margaret Thatcher, grimly contemplating last week’s close call in Parliament, the problems within the ranks of her opponents offered some solace. She could also draw comfort from the knowledge that she has more than two years to assuage voter disenchantment. But in attempting to do so, the “Iron Lady” faces an awkward dilemma. Much of her reputation—and support —rests on her unyielding pursuit of solutions to Britain’s problems, from the 1982 Falklands War to inflation. Any sudden conversion to compromise could disastrously undermine that hard won image. —DAVID NORTH in London.
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