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26 February 2009

The stalking horse

Sir Anthony Meyer’s son Ashley remembers his father’s doomed bid to challenge Margaret Thatcher for

By Ashley Meyer

That was the date when nominations closed for the election of Tory party leader: 23 November 1989. My father had put in his nomination two weeks before, hoping that a more prominent Conservative would rise to the challenge. This did not happen, and so my father became the “stalking horse”.

Rereading his book, Stand Up and Be Counted, (1990), I see clearly that my father had not planned this challenge well in advance. But he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with Margaret Thatcher’s policies and style, and had been disenchanted ever since the early 1980s.

My father had expressed grave concerns about the wisdom of going to war over the Falklands in 1982 and had voted against allowing the US to use British bases to bomb Libya in 1986. In the recession of the early 1980s, he was keenly aware that, “for the poorest in our society – the very old, some of the young, the chronic sick – things were getting slowly and steadily worse as the affluence of the large majority equally steadily increased”. Thatcher seemed determined to say goodbye to One Nation Toryism.

Along with many other Tories, my father was alarmed by Thatcher’s Bruges speech on the European Union in September 1988, in which she painted a picture of a European superstate hell-bent on centralisation. In the June 1989 European Union elections, the Tories ran on the slogan “Stay at home on 15 June and you’ll live on a diet of Brussels”. He regarded this as cheap and tawdry campaigning, “crudely designed to exploit the average Englishman’s dislike of foreigners and his firmly held conviction that they are sure to swindle him”.

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My father had no time for people with a narrow vision. He wrote that Thatcher “seems to be convinced that she is both invincible and infallible”. Many leading Tories have confirmed in their autobiographies that they began to question Thatcher’s powers of judgement at this time.

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The result of the leadership vote was 314 votes for Thatcher, 33 for my father and 27 abstentions. Michael Heseltine wrote later that “Anthony had delivered a clear message”. Rather unwisely, one of Thatcher’s aides let it be known that she believed she needed five terms in office to achieve her purpose. She survived in power for another year.

My father was an enthusiastic supporter of Heseltine’s candidacy in 1990. Heseltine had long been a committed European and my father had greatly admired his work in Liverpool.

My father’s first priority was to be a conscientious constituency MP, which he achieved between 1970 and 1992. He had no wish to be in the limelight. However, he was provoked into his challenge by a leader who was becoming out of tune with the electorate on issues such as the poll tax and was damaging Britain’s long-term interests with her policy on Europe.

After he retired as an MP in 1992, my father spent the last 12 years of his life speaking to school students across the country about the perils of nationalism and the achievements and great potential of the European Union. He received many letters of appreciation from young people.

Why was my father’s commitment to Europe so strong? He had crossed to Normandy in July 1944, a month after the D-Day landings. He had seen a continent in ruins. Three of his best friends were killed in the war. Along with many others of his generation, he was determined that there should never be another war between the nations of Europe.

He was very sad, at the time of his death in 2004, that the Tory party, the once-great party of Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, was being led by politicians who lacked this essential perspective on history. With many of its leaders born in the 1960s, this is still the case today.

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