Sunday, January 14, 2007

Coalition government and the Southampton connection.

The grocer flanked by 'that bloody woman!' and the man with three names in 1975.

As has been widely commented, the Conservatives face an electoral mountain to climb if they are to win the next general election. The general perception is that they need to poll at least 42% of the vote and 10% more than Labour to win the narrowest of majorities. While it can be done (Labour achieved huge swings in 1992 and 1945 of course) and the pundits can be confounded (as they were by Health in 1970 and Major in 1992), the current opinion polls would seem to point to the possibility of a coalition government.
It is a situation the Conservative Party has not had to consider since the 1970s.
On Friday 9th October 1974, Margaret Thatcher was on the campaign trail as a shadow minister in Southampton appearing on the BBC radio programme ‘Any Questions’.
What few listeners knew was that the previous evening she had been asked to see Ted Heath at his home in Wilton Street. She had been called in to have Heath tell her that he was now prepared to call for a ‘Government of National Unity’ which was what he thought ‘the people’ wanted. Thatcher was apparently furious. After all Heath had advocated making pledges and a manifesto that was as specific as possible but now many of these were to be jettisoned because that seemed to offer Ted a better prospect of returning to Downing Street. An interesting debate on this can be found in G. R. Searle’s book 'Party before Country' (1995).
It is perhaps surprising that Ted thought that he himself would become the leader of such a government for he was as the excellent Conservative historian John Charmley writes, as ‘abrasive and aloof as ever’.
Meanwhile, in Southampton, Margaret Thatcher just about managed to hold the line saying that if there was no clear majority, a coalition would probably be necessary but that she herself could never serve in a government with left wingers like Michael Foot or Tony Benn. As she notes in second volume of her memoirs, the chances of figures like her and Keith Joseph serving in such a coalition of the great and the good was tiny- ‘hardly greater in fact than Ted himself leading it’.

In the event Labour won 319 seats, the Conservatives 277. Heath had reached the end of the road and on the 4th February 1975, Heath was deposed as leader of the Conservative Party.


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