Thatcher papers show 25 Tory MPs considered joining early SDP

A number of things hit the headlines this morning as the Margaret Thatcher Foundation reveals papers from 1981.

The early morning BBC radio headlines focussed on a meeting between Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch around the time News International acquired:

Margaret Thatcher had a secret meeting with Rupert Murdoch at Chequers weeks before his 1981 purchase of the Times newspapers, newly released files show.

A note by her press secretary Bernard Ingham says the prime minister thanked Mr Murdoch for “keeping her posted”.

But the contentious issue of whether to refer the bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was not raised.

But as I was driving home this lunchtime, the headlines had moved onto how Thatcher had been worried that a group of Conservative MPs were secretly discussing defecting to the nascent SDP, which at the time was enjoying its first flush of popularity that never really followed through to election results.

The Guardian reports

Thatcher’s personal papers for 1981, released on Saturday, show how close the Conservative party came to splitting in the face of “brutal in-fighting” in Thatcher’s inner circle, and the apparently unstoppable rise of the newly founded Social Democratic party.

Open criticism from leading cabinet “wets”, such as Ian Gilmour, as well as the “blue chip” group of younger, leftish Tory MPs led by Chris Patten, is well known – but the threat of revolt from a group labelled by Thatcher’s inner circle as the “gang of 25” has not come to light before.

The papers, published by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation at the Churchill archives centre in Cambridge, show the Conservative research department told the prime minister that the SDP-Liberal alliance – formed after the gang of four of Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers split from Labour – might bury the old Labour party.

It added that the “electoral and polling evidence suggests [the alliance] threatens also to sweep the Conservative party into a small minority position worse than anything we have experienced for over 100 years”.

With time on our side we know which of those who had been considering their options subsequently went on to prominence in the Conservative Party, including for Stephen Dorrell, office within the cabinet. How would the early SDP have been different had its ranks been swelled by a further 25 MPs of Conservative origin?

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9 Comments

  • Kevin Maher 17th Mar '12 - 6:25pm

    One Conservative MP, Christopher Brocklebank Fowler, did join the SDP. He lost his seat and later joined the Labour Party.

  • Well even though it didn’t happen, the Lib Dems (Liberals plus SDP) eventually went into coalition with the Tories, so the result was much the same and it therfore doesn’t matter much.

  • Richard Shaw 17th Mar '12 - 10:23pm

    I think we need a new term to describe the increasing likelihood as a LDV thread lengthens of someone saying LibDems=Conservatives on account of us working together in government, while ignoring the clear & historic differences in policies and philosophy. Similar things would have been said had we somehow done the impossible and gone into coalition with Labour. It’s such a petty & tiresome thing to say. Coalitions are the norm in many councils – no one accuses the Sheffield Green Party of being LibDems (or vice versa) for when they worked together Sheffield City Council was under no overall control. Councillors from different parties work together to achieve their common aims for the good of their constituents and where they differ will agree to fight it out at the next elections on their respective agendas. Westminster should be no different and people should be mature enough to recognise that.

  • Martin Pierce 18th Mar '12 - 8:12am

    I do remember those early SDP days – it was very exciting, and I joined the Liberal Party in 1981. Richard Shaw is right, but what he sets out is not what is happening unfortunately. Starting with the cringeworthy Downing Street Garden press conference where Nick cuddled up to Cameron, and continuing today with continual strident attacks on Labour – the banal ‘mess Labour left behind’ message, whereas no govt would have had much choice but to spend in the way they did to keep the economy afloat – even George W Bush did the same in the US in the last months of his Presidency – he did it again during the q&a session at Conference last week. Nick thus sets himself up as tribally anti-Labour as any good Tory. It’s not very Lib Dem, and it’s bad politics as we might well want/need to do a deal with Labour one day. Plus a more even handed approach would go down better with the electorate as it would chime with our different way of doing politics with less ‘yah-boo’

  • Daniel Henry 18th Mar '12 - 8:51am

    What Martin said.

    I also second the establishment of Shaw’s Law!

  • I can remember Robert Hicks, then MP for Bodmin, telling Peter Snow (?) on “Newsnight” around the time of Warrington that he was on the verge of defecting to the SDP, but he never did. The only other one I recall being in the frame was David Knox (Leek). While Knox probably was fairly close to being a social democrat or liberal, Hicks was concerned about losing his seat to the then Liberal Party, and came across mighty shifty on “Newsnight”, if my memory serves me right.

    Defection gave the SDP some really excellent people, a number of them still with us today (Mike Hancock, Bob Russell and the pre- last weekend Shirley Williams, to name but three). But it also landed us with a clutch of dinosaurs of the old Labour machine, who were not noticeably liberal (or even democratic in some cases), and who hurt our image and annoyed the Liberals. Jim Wellbeloved (“Mr James Muchdisliked”), Michael O’Halloran, John Grant and Colin Phipps being memorable examples.

    The party as it stands today is (probably) an unsustainable coalition of social democrats and free marketeers united by a commitment to pluralism, civil liberties and internationalism. But we have to persist with this loveless marriage because the alternative is equivalent to self-immolation, as those of us who recall the merger debacle can and will bear witness.

  • – but going back to the original piece… of course the Tory friends in the media made sure that the potential for growth of the SDP didn’t go anywhere… much as they are trying to now for the LibDems.

  • Thanks sesco for even menioning Mike Hancock. A superb local MP noiceably short of support from the leadership during his recent public crucifiction.

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