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Conference Voyages: Patrick Kidd on the Conservatives in Birmingham

4 min read

With the pound plunging, inflation soaring, an energy crisis brewing, trade unions striking and a Chancellor staking the government’s future on tax cuts and a dash for growth, Liz Truss faces a similar Conference challenge to Ted Heath 50 years ago. Maybe it’s time for David Cassidy to make a comeback as well.

Heath had been Conservative leader for eight years by 1972, while Truss still has to prove herself despite eight years in the Cabinet. Her best-known speech remains that one about the disgraceful imports of cheese, her “to Brie or not to Brie” moment. 

At the 1972 conference, Heath argued that government policy was “firm but fair”, that they sought “co-operation not confrontation” with the unions and that Labour was trying to face both ways.

Rather defensively, he conceded that things weren’t going well. “Let no one say that we have not fought, and fought hard,” he said. “When we have had setbacks, they have not been for the lack of will in trying to overcome them.” He argued that he had been given too little credit for the success they had achieved.

As the Emperor Tiberius said: ‘Let them hate me as long as they approve of me'

It would be hard for Truss as a new PM to pull that off – any more than she will argue, as Heath did, that the path to renewal lies in the European Union – but she may pursue another of his lines and argue that at least she and the Chancellor are doing something to address issues that would sink any government and that they deserve time to see whether it pays off. 

“Most things are a question of attitude,” Heath said. “You are either on the side of doing things or you are on the side of believing that they just cannot be done. I ask our fellow citizens: do you want to say ‘No’ all the time? Or are we going to have the courage to say ‘Yes’?… We are going to stand up and be counted.” Or as the Emperor Tiberius said: “Let them hate me as long as they approve of me.”

The problem with that, of course, is that the electorate in 1974 did not approve. Maybe the model instead should be that of John Major in 1991, another new prime minister who had big distractions abroad (in his case the Gulf War and collapse of Communism) as well as restlessness at home. 

It was a trademark Major speech, full of personal touches about his humble beginnings – “It is a long road from Coldharbour Lane to Downing Street” – and special interests. “During the summer, I did quite a bit of travelling: Headingley, Edgbaston, Trent Bridge, Lord’s, the Oval. Also Moscow, Peking, Hong Kong and Kennebunkport.” Who knew they played cricket in Kennebunkport?

There was also the odd mangled metaphor: “There’s only one way to deal with a lie: nail it to the wall of truth.” But much of it was about setting out a philosophical difference between his party and Labour. The Tory guiding principle, he said, was “the power to choose and the right to own”, while Labour “can’t accept that choice is something most of us can be trusted with”. He spoke out against “defeatists who run our country down” and up for aspiration.

In doing so, Major echoed Harold Macmillan’s first Conference speech as leader in 1957, when he declared that “unity and daring” would defeat the “fainthearts and defeatists”. Major couldn’t quite claim, as Macmillan had a few months before his conference, that Britain had “never had it so good”, but they both took over with inflation on the way down, a corner turned. That option isn’t there for Truss, nor was it for Heath. To use one of Major’s cricketing metaphors, she has fallen behind the run-rate and needs to hit out, even if it risks being caught in the deep. 

Patrick Kidd is editor of The Times diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics

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