London Letter

Will the Tory rebellion topple Macmillan?

BEVERLEY BAXTER March 1 1958
London Letter

Will the Tory rebellion topple Macmillan?

BEVERLEY BAXTER March 1 1958

Will the Tory rebellion topple Macmillan?

London Letter

BEVERLEY BAXTER

All governments are born to die. Even Aneurin Bevan admitted that in 1945 when there was such an electoral landslide that we Tories were no more than a decimated platoon surrounded by a socialist horde.

“We shall be in power for twenty-five years,” he said to me in the camaraderie of the smoke room, "but for one reason or another we shall then be thrown out. But mark my words, Beverley, there will never be a Conservative government in this country again. It happened to the Liberal Party and it will happen to you.”

Six years later the Conservatives came to power and have held it ever since. Yet we know that sooner or later we shall be out again. Even in Canada it has been proved that a government cannot las* forever.

Yes, all governments are born to die although some, like Charles II, take an unconscionable time about it. In my time I saw Ramsay Macdonald pounded so unmercifully that he resigned as leader of the Labor Party and went home to die. Stanley Baldwin, who had been

hammered incessantly by the Beaverbrook press and by a section of his own party, resigned the premiership with a sense of relief and went to live his short remaining time in the countryside that he loved so much.

I saw death on Neville Chamberlain's face on that tragic night before the declaration of war on Hitler when the Tories shouted to the socialist leader to speak for England. And years later I watched • Anthony Eden during the Suez tragedy pounded on the ropes when he was so ill that he could hardly guard his chin, much less hit back. And last autumn I met Louis St. Laurent in a corridor of the Chateau Laurier, a great servant of the state dismissed by the electorate.

Now I must ask you to turn your attention to Westminster once more where Harold Macmillan, home from his Commonwealth tour, faces the full implications of the ministerial rebellion that led to the resignation of Chancellor Peter Thorncycroft and his two junior ministers.

I must explain that the actual seats in the continued on page 46

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A PARTY WORRIED AS TREASURY BOSSES CHANGED

London Letter continued from page 8

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Was Thorneycroft’s suggested cut in welfare spending worth risking votes? The PM said no

British House of Commons are divided by a gangway. Thus ministers on one side and shadow opposition ministers opposite sit above the gangway whereas the ordinary run of MPs sit below the gangway. Churchill, who breaks all laws, sits in the corner seat below the gangway, but we shall let that pass.

Now consider the situation in the House of Prime Minister Macmillan. Almost breathing down his neck is Peter Thorneycroft, the youngish, spectacular ex-chancellor of the exchequer, who resigned from the cabinet because Macmillan would not let him make a saving of fifty million pounds on National Health expenditure.

Sitting somewhere near Thorneycroft are the two grave diggers, as they are sometimes called — Nigel Birch and Enoch Powell, who, as junior ministers of the Treasury, resigned with their chief. As ex-ministers they have the right to sit as private members behind the ministerial benches.

Turn your attention now to the back benches above the gangway. There you see a languid, good-looking, dark-haired Mereutio named Antony Head. As secretary for war he was responsible for the army's part in the attack in the Suez Canal area. Personally, I believe that he did his part well in the invasion; but when Eden resigned it was felt that Head should follow him into the twilight of the gods.

Finally, sitting beside Harold Macmil-

lan on the government front bench is R. A. Butler, always senior to Macmillan yet passed over when a prime minister had to be chosen in succession to Eden. Butler, like Brutus, is an honorable man, but you remember what Brutus did to Caesar.

In such a balance of personalities it seems like an ironic comedy that an almost unknown figure, lacking in dynamism and showmanship, should suddenly emerge as a figure of immense importance. His name is Heathcoat Amory.

“We hardly know him”

Early in September, when I drove to the London airport to sec my son off for Canada, an official said that there was a friend of mine in the VIP room who wanted to see me. The VIP in question was Amory, who then held the unenviable post of minister of agriculture in Her Majesty’s government. He thought that I. as a Canadian, might be able to give him a hint or two for his Canadian visit.

"All you have to do is to buy the wheat surplus and they will erect a statue to you in Winnipeg,” I said. He smiled rather wanly, but just then an official arrived to escort the VIP to the plane, and the meeting was over.

Imagine then the surprise when it was announced that Amory had been appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in succession to Peter Thorneycroft. "But we hardly know him,” said more than one Tory. Other voices said, “There’s a lot of

character and ability behind that shy exterior of his." Yet in spite of these friendly voices it is a fact that Amory might well have been given the title of "The Unknown Chancellor.”

Yet there was a persistent undertone of comment that I heard again and again. “There’s more to Heathcoat Amory than meets the eye.”

In the meantime the dethroned exchancellor, Peter Thorneycroft, arranged to address his constituents, first as an act of courtesy to his supporters, and secondly to use the meeting for the purpose of putting his caseto the country and the outside world.

Naturally the hall in his constituency was packed with people who were understandably loyal to Thorneycroft as their member of parliament. In addition, Thorneycroft looks younger than his years so that the clash between the prime minister and himself appeared as a struggle between a youngish ardent figure and the all-powerful prime minister who was senior in age by fifteen years.

In the circumstances. Thorneycroft was given an enthusiastic vote of confidence by his constituents. It was in the true British political tradition that says that today’s rebel is tomorrow's ruler.

But why did Prime Minister Macmillan allow a crisis to develop over such a minor sum as fifty million pounds? Well, let us move from No. 11 Downing Street, where the chancellor of the exchequer has an office, to No. 10 where the prime min-

ister lives and labors. I do not know what happened in Downing Street but it is fairly easy to guess. Here was the prime minister trying to get everything clear so that he could leave on schedule for his six weeks’ Commonwealth tour. And next door was Chancellor Thorneycroft trying to get decisions from the prime minister that would enable him to produce his budget. Admittedly, the responsibility is directly the chancellor's, but you cannot rule out the overlord authority of the head of the government.

Somewhere in the negotiations and discussions Thorneycroft must have intimated to Macmillan that he was going to reduce the cost of the welfare state by fifty million pounds in the ensuing year. It may be that the prime minister indicated partial agreement but it is equally possible that other ministers argued that fifty million pounds was a saving of such small dimensions that it would not be worth the resentment that would be felt by the pensioners and the insured workers. At any rate it is evident that at some point the prime minister took the view that the saving would cause more trouble than it was worth. It may even be true that Macmillan, trying to clear his desk, peremptorily came to a decision and said that he must have his way.

Now I must picture a purely imaginative scene. For purposes of my drama I shall place Nigel Birch and Enoch Powell, the two junior ministers of the Treas-

ury, waiting at No. 11 Downing Street for the return of Thorneycroft from No. 10. What are they like, these two ministers of the Crown? Birch is like a grave digger given to jokes of a sardonic character. Powell is a Greek scholar of such attainment that he reads Greek as easily as you and I read English. Neither has any of the flamboyance and showmanship of Thorneycroft. In fact, they remind me of the chorus of bandits in that old operetta The Mountebanks, which went:

We are members of a secret society, Working by the moon's uncertain disc: Our motto is revenge without anxiety, That is without unnecessary risk.

But it is one thing to disagree with the prime minister in principle and quite another to refuse to accept his advice. This was open rebellion and the prime minister was faced with a direct challenge and defiance. One ministerial resignation can shake a government but three ministerial resignations threaten a government's very survival. Macmillan, with his shrew'd Celtic instinct, must have known that the future of the prime minister and the government depended on one man — R. A. Butler, the home secretary and leader of the House of Commons.

When Sir Anthony Eden resigned the premiership the choice of a successor lay between Butler and Macmillan. The Queen sent for Sir Winston Churchill to advise her and there is no reason to doubt

that he suggested that Macmillan should be commanded to form a government.

Butler is a man of dedication and fine character but it must have been a crushing blow when he was passed over for the premiership. Therefore, when Macmillan asked Butler to discuss with him the Thorneycroft crisis the position of Butler was decisive. If he had been vindictive he could have said to Macmillan that having heard both sides he, Butler, could only take one course — to support Thorneycroft. In such a situation Macmillan would have had to withdraw his opposition to Thorneycroft's welfare cuts or else ask Her Majesty to accept his resignation.

In other words, Butler might have played Brutus to Macmillan’s Caesar and plunged the dagger into his heart. Instead. he sustained the man who had superseded him as prime minister. And thus Harold Macmillan flew across the seas to India, and his Commonwealth tour had begun.

No one knows how the story will end. How' long can a prime minister lead a government when behind him on the benches above the gangway are ex-ministers breathing down his neck?

It is difficult to believe that this parliament w'ill live out its allotted span. At the moment I would not like to prophesy what would happen when the next general election comes along. But one thing is certain: life at Westminster will not be dull. ★