Magazine article The Spectator

Tory Press Gets Tory Leadership Election Wrong (in 1975)

Magazine article The Spectator

Tory Press Gets Tory Leadership Election Wrong (in 1975)

Article excerpt

It is generally agreed that the Tory leadership election doesn't present the party with much of a choice. Once Kenneth Clarke has been excluded for all the obvious reasons, objections against the other candidates pile up. That does not prevent them putting themselves around in the Tory press as the best thing since sliced bread. They have each written articles and been lunched by the high commands of our Conservative newspapers.

Things were much the same in February 1975 when Ted Heath was challenged for the leadership of the Tory party. It was said then, as now, that the choice was between pygmies. The Economist caught the general mood when it wrote in characteristically snooty vein, `Mrs Thatcher is precisely the sort of candidate . . . who ought to be able to stand, and lose, harmlessly.' In the Times Bernard Levin dismissed the 'makeweight' candidates of `Pryor [sic], Peyton or Howe'. Peregrine Worsthorne in the Sunday Telegraph was driven to recommend the charms of Lord Hailsham, while others thought Christopher Soames a safe pair of hands.

The first ballot took place on 4 February. The candidates were Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and Hugh Fraser. Most people thought that Mr Heath would probably win, including Mr Heath himself. James Margach in the Sunday Times wrote that he had it more or less buttoned up. The Daily Mail's poll of Tory MPs suggested that Mr Heath would come first, though possibly not by a wide enough margin to obviate the need for a second ballot. A Harris poll in the Daily Express found that 70 per cent of Tory voters preferred him to any other candidate. Soundings in the constituencies produced similar results in favour of the incumbent.

Not one national newspaper supported Mrs Thatcher before the first ballot, or predicted that she would win. Although none was enthusiastic for Mr Heath, most came down on his side. The Daily Mail, then edited by David English, published a halfhearted leader in his favour. The Daily Express was more loyal. The Times berated him for his inflationary policies (`Mr Heath, whether elected or no, cannot offer a future for the Conservative party so long as he is the prisoner of his own past') but could not bring itself to support Mrs Thatcher. The Daily Telegraph wrote a leader full of submerged dislike of Mr Heath (`On some issues he is wrong') while conceding that `it seems likely that he will win.'

Only one important publication supported Mrs Thatcher before the first ballot, and thought it possible that she might be elected leader. That was The Spectator. In the issues of 18 January and 25 January its political columnist, Patrick Cosgrave, had backed her as the best person to revive the Tory party. On the eve of the ballot, the magazine pronounced that `Mr Heath is a burnt-out case whose good fortune will never come again'. Mrs Thatcher, by contrast, had 'a definite understanding of the kind of Conservatism which the nation needs' and could `articulate it forcefully and with courage'.

Mrs Thatcher got 130 votes, Mr Heath 119 and Mr Fraser 16. Mr Heath withdrew. It would be fun to suggest that The Spectator's support was decisive, but I doubt it. Mrs Thatcher had come first in spite of the Conservative press. Tory MPs were influenced by their own feelings about Mr Heath, as well as Mrs Thatcher's campaign, brilliantly masterminded by Airey Neave. Even after she had won the first round, the Daily Mail was the only Tory daily paper that could bring itself to endorse her in the second ballot, in which other candidates now joined battle. …

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