Changing the leader need not spell doom

Andrew Alexander

Last updated at 13:31 13 April 2004

Nervous Tories claim that changing the leadership now would demonstrate such internal divisions that it would kill all chance of an election victory. But there is no evidence that splits over the leadership doom a party, quite the contrary. In the early Fifties, senior Tories grumbled constantly that Churchill was overstaying his welcome. Eden, his successor, went on to boost the Conservative majority in 1955.

Macmillan, chosen after Eden, came in for cruel criticism from Tory MPs in 1962. Yet his successor, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, very nearly won a fourth Conservative victory in 1964.

The bitter struggle over Ted Heath's leadership in 1965 did not prevent Margaret Thatcher from triumphing in 1979. Despite her brutal assassination in 1990, John Major scored an election triumph in 1992. In short, there is no reason to fear change.

Any doubts I had about Iain Duncan Smith's cause being lost were dispelled when Tory MP Sir Patrick Cormack urged him to call for a (probably fatal) vote of confidence.

Cormack is not a particularly mighty or influential figure in the party, though he sits on the 1922 executive. But he is a weathercock.

There is always at least one Tory MP to watch in the party who will tell you which way the wind has settled.

This does not involve much swinging backwards and forwards, far from it.

But when he announces that a cause is effectively lost, you may be sure that it is.

At that point, you drop what you are doing and head for the lifeboat - where you will find him already seated.

We grumpy old men have a lot to grumble about these days, sometimes including other grumpy old men.

Two who deserve to be drummed out of the club are Alan Watkins of the Independent on Sunday and Sir Peregrine Worsthorne writing in The Spectator.

They have now launched savage attacks on Margaret Thatcher from both political wings. WRITES Watkins: 'Margaret Thatcher won her three elections, but destroyed England in the process.' In Worsthorne's review of a Thatcher biography, amid familiar wailings about the decline and fall of the country - for him it has been downhill ever since the reform Act of 1832 - he accuses her of 'debauching' the standards for which her father, Alderman Roberts, stood.

We are witnessing the continuing process of creating a myth about her which is so weird that it needs the assistance of psychologists to explain it.

Old men forget, of course. Looking back on an imagined golden age is a common enough human activity.

But what on earth can it be that Watkins and Worsthorne miss from the pre-1979 era?

Surely it cannot be the way that trade unions ruled and ruined the country - and held Fleet Street to constant ransom, among other things. And it could hardly be the laws which forbade you taking your own capital abroad, or even enough for a good holiday.

Do Watkins and Worsthorne look back longingly to tax rates which could be over 90 pc ? Or the vast subsidies for nationalised industries?

It is hard to believe that anyone misses the farce of official wage and price controls, supposed to prevent inflation but never doing so.

No one, surely, could look back with anything but horror at inflation running at a five-year average of 15pc when Thatcher came to office - down to 6pc when she left. Or Britain's deserved reputation as the sick man of Europe.

Nor, one would think, would either man regret her ending the campaign to destroy the grammar schools.

Of course many things have got worse over the past 30 years or more - and continue to do so under New Labour: crime and educational standards so obviously. But these are not symptoms of Thatcherism; rather of the long-term failure of the political elite to display the courage to act.

Even allowing for Fleet Street at its most excitable, politicians at their silliest and the public at its dumbest, the brouhaha about Matthew Barrett and credit cards must rank as exceptionally daft.

The Chief Executive of Barclays merely told a Commons committee that borrowing on a card was expensive.

He would not do it. He tried, though not always successfully, to persuade members of his family to pay off their card bills within the allowed time and not to incur interest charges.

But who thinks that borrowing through cards is cheap? Should such people be allowed out, except on a lead?

Borrowing on a card can be convenient, as can shopping late at night at a corner shop. But I have yet to meet, or even imagine, the person who thinks that the prices charged there will be as low as at Tesco.

Suppose that Barrett had, by contrast, said that card credit was not expensive, that he encouraged his family to borrow that way.

Then I for one would wonder if he was fit to run a bank. MPs, and no doubt the Press, would have risen like a swarm of bees and attacked him for financial illiteracy and encouraging people to incur excessive debts.

But being a banker, there was of course no way he could win.

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now