Westland – did the helicopter firm really bring Thatcher to the brink?

Westland – did the helicopter firm really bring Thatcher to the brink?

  From the perspective of hindsight, the middle term of the Thatcher government in 1983-87 may look like plain sailing. It did not seem like it at the time; it was the parliament of the ‘banana skin’ – a term then used to describe a number of unrelated mishaps which tripped up several ministers. The biggest, slipperiest banana skin of them all was the Westland Affair, the one that led Margaret Thatcher to speculate on 27 January 1986 that: I may not be Prime Minister by six o’clock tonight. How did the business arrangements of a helicopter manufacturing company in Yeovil bring Thatcher apparently so close to the edge? She even stepped back at one point after a long meeting between senior ministers and marvelled: Do you realise we have spent three hours of precious time discussing a company with a capitalisation of only £30 million? What is the world coming to? Westland was in financial trouble in 1985 and was looking for a commercial partner so that it could sort out its problems. There were two options: a tie-up with the US helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky (through its parent company United Technology Industries, UTC) or a European consortium. The Thatcher government was divided, in an increasingly public, embarrassing and vitriolic argument, on the best course of action. The main disruptive element was Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State for Defence, who actively supported the European option and worked hard for it, politically and commercially. Heseltine feared that Sikorsky was interested in Westland because it could be used to get a piece of the enormous Al-Yamamah arms deal agreed between Saudi Arabia and the UK in 1985, which allegedly mentioned an order of 80 helicopters. Defence procurement – the very word has a slight whiff of the illicit – has never been a simple or transparent industry and Westland was a cork bobbing on the surface above deeper currents. It should not have been a big political issue. The government professed neutrality, although Thatcher herself had sympathy for the US option. But it worked on fault lines that were already there. Although Heseltine had been a good Thatcherite in many ways, particularly in the 1983 election on defence, their personal styles clashed. Many suspected Heseltine was looking for a reason to have a ‘good resignation’ as part of a long term career plan. A confrontation about something was clearly in the air, and it coalesced around Westland. Heseltine grew frustrated in late 1985 that the future of Westland was not being discussed in Cabinet, and Thatcher felt that Heseltine was blatantly ignoring collective Cabinet responsibility. In retrospect Thatcher should have sacked Heseltine for insubordination in December 1985. She would have...

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Introducing the ‘Balfour gambit’ – when a government resigns for no apparent reason

Introducing the ‘Balfour gambit’ – when a government resigns for no apparent reason

    Last month I wrote about the events of 30 years ago – the Westland scandal that divided the Thatcher government and caused two Cabinet resignations in early 1986. I allowed another anniversary to pass by, namely 110 years since the last Liberal overall majority was elected in the landslide of 1906. It is just about feasible that the same individual may have been able to vote both in the 1906 election and in the 1987 election that followed Westland, in the latter case as a man aged 103 or so, but there are few other threads linking the two. The events of the 1906 campaign, and the broad shape of the results, are a familiar enough story. The Conservatives, tired, divided and beset by resignations after a long spell in government, stumbled into one of the worst defeats in their history. A chain of consequences was set in motion that led to the establishment of the welfare state, the rise of the Labour Party, Irish independence and the supremacy of the House of Commons over the House of Lords. It was quite an important election in historical perspective, but the coming of the 1906 election was the result of a rather strange manoeuvre that suggests that it was a bit of a game that got severely out of hand. We are accustomed to the expectation that a sitting government calls an election at the end of its parliamentary term, and if the election result is negative the Prime Minister then tenders the resignation of the government, or in some cases remains in office to explore the possibility of forming a coalition (1974, 2010) or face parliament to be formally defeated (1886, 1892, 1923-24). Occasionally, though, a novel variation could happen in that a government could resign and put the other side in before an election had taken place, even without suffering what would generally be regarded as a defeat on a vote of confidence. Gladstone and Rosebery did this in 1885 and 1895, essentially turning the keys of Downing Street over to Salisbury. It was therefore odd, but not unprecedented, for the Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour to return them to the Liberals without a fight in December 1905. Party leaders and strategists are often not very good at assessing events and tendencies in the other party. They sometimes believe their own propaganda and either underestimate their opponents, or else endow them with imagined near-supernatural powers of political manipulation in order to find psychologically satisfying explanations for losing. This happened even in the clubland environment of Edwardian politics where despite the vicious intensity of party conflict the Liberal and Conservative elites were socially intertwined. The relative ease...

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The 1966 election – 50 years on

The 1966 election – 50 years on

  Fifty years ago this month, in March 1966, Britain went to the polls in a General Election. The 1966 election has not been remembered in history as one of the more interesting or important contests. It was seen as a foregone conclusion and the campaign was rather short of incident. It stands as rather an anomaly – the only decisive Labour majority elected between 1945 and 1997, and the only election between 1951 and 1987 in which the Labour vote, expressed as a share of the whole election, went up. It might have seemed at the time like the start of a long period of Labour ascendancy, but that future was cancelled. And the reason for that goes back, in part, to the campaign that was fought that optimistic March fifty years ago. The Labour government’s parliamentary position was precarious. Its majority was only five seats in October 1964, and that sank to three with the loss of Leyton in a by-election in January 1965. Several MPs were rebellious from the right (Woodrow Wyatt, Desmond Donnelly) or the left (William Warbey), and several others were in poor health; the death of Harry Solomons, who had gained the marginal seat of Hull North, caused a by-election at the end of January 1966. Labour’s popularity had been growing since October, and with the help of the promise of building the Humber Bridge a confident Tory campaign in Hull was heavily defeated. A month later, Wilson called the election for 31 March 1966. The 1966 election was probably the peak of politicians’ faith in opinion polls, which had been broadly correct in the previous few elections and had not yet misfired. Labour was well ahead, and this sucked a lot of the suspense out of the election campaign – and also contributed to the shock that was felt when polling failed in 1970. The year was a peak of scientific optimism – the National Plan to grow the economy was one reflection, and rationality and planning were apparent in the form and content of the 1966 election campaign. Both Labour and Conservative campaigns were disciplined and based on well-founded and researched strategies. Labour’s campaign centred around economic performance, general government competence and the popular figure of Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The party’s principal slogan was ‘You know Labour government works’ – a shrewd assertion of the government’s competence and an invitation to electors who had hesitated in 1964 for fear of change to go Labour this time. It was in this election, rather than in 1964, that the description ‘Thirteen Wasted Years’ was most used about the Conservative government of 1951-64, with the contrast drawn between modernisation under Wilson and the...

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LOCAL ELECTIONS 2012 IN RETROSPECT

LOCAL ELECTIONS 2012 IN RETROSPECT

Local election results – England and Wales The 2012 local elections, leaving the London mayoralty aside, were a considerable success for Labour. While in 2011 Labour did very well in the big urban areas and not so well elsewhere, in 2012 Labour advanced pretty much everywhere that the party is a viable proposition, including such places as Weymouth, Tamworth and Great Yarmouth where the Conservative vote held up well in 2011, suggesting that the party is making progress on a much wider front than last year. In terms of benchmarks and targets for party performance, Labour exceeded all realistic expectations. The party made a net gain of 823 seats across Britain, comfortably over the 700-720 that was the highest legitimate benchmark for a good performance. The party also took nearly all of its target councils, including some which had been regarded as rather ambitious targets: my previous paper describes Dudley, Cardiff and Redditch for instance as tough asks for Labour, but the party won the first two easily and the third narrowly. The only failures were Swindon (where the Conservatives retained a 1-seat majority despite Labour polling more votes) and the always peculiar West Midlands borough of Walsall. As expected, Labour won the inaugural contests for the new mayors of Liverpool (in a landslide) and Salford (easily). However, given the low turnout in these elections, it may be more a case of the Conservatives being in much worse shape in 2012 rather than a large positive movement to Labour. Turnout at around 32 per cent in England was poor, particularly in comparison with last year when it does appear that the AV referendum increased turnout (also significant is that the 2011 elections took place in more suburban and rural areas where turnout is higher anyway, while 2012’s elections were mostly urban). However, while it was pretty low, turnout was not as bad as it was during the first term of Blair’s government and not too much worse than years such as 1995 (which saw a big drop in turnout and a Labour landslide). In most areas, for every ten people who voted Conservative in 2011 about six did so this year, while for every ten Labour voters in 2011 there were about eight or nine this year. The net effect was a significant swing to Labour. Looking at the local elections, another ‘hung parliament’ general election emerges as a strong possibility. A strongly regionalised swing, favouring Labour in the north and the Conservatives in the south, has interesting consequences, particularly when combined with the Liberal Democrats’ resilience in many of their stronger constituencies and the success of the SNP in Scotland. A swing to Labour will take out a...

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