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February 08th 2015 print

John O’Sullivan

The Long-term Peril of Knifing a PM

As Liberal MPs mull Tony Abbott's future, Quadrant's new editor, John O'Sullivan (left), hopes they have a sufficient grasp of history to appreciate what Britain's Tories reaped from their ouster of Margaret Thatcher: bitter division and many fruitless years in the wilderness

o'sullivanDistinguished British journalist John O’Sullivan (left) arrived in Australia in mid-January to take up a two-year post as editor of Quadrant. Within days, Tony Abbott, who John has commended to international readers, faced the crisis of his life. Tom Switzer’s new program for ABC Radio National, Between the Lines, brought John to the studio for the following interview.

Tom Switzer: Let me introduce John O’Sullivan. He was a senior advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he’s edited magazines such as the conservative National Review, and the Washington-based National Interest, and now he’s moved to Australia to edit Quadrant magazine. John O’Sullivan, thanks for talking to us on Between the Lines.

O’Sullivan: A great pleasure to be here.

Now given what’s going on in Australian politics right now, can I just ask what you make of the crisis flaring around Tony Abbott’s leadership?

Obviously the crisis was, to some extent, sparked by his decision to give a knighthood to Prince Philip. Now, one has to say that happy is the country where giving a knighthood to Prince Philip sparks a major political crisis. It does suggest that other things are not all that bad. However, it is also plain that this is a real crisis. There’s been a developing hysteria and that’s always a danger for political leaders. The question is whether or not the party and the country will sort of tell the members of the party, the MPs, you know, ‘cool it, this is leading in a very dangerous position.’

Parties that have these kind of rows tend to lose power and then stay out of power for long periods, and I think that is beginning to happen. But, on the other hand, when a crisis is still going on you don’t know how it will turn out.

You have written about Tony Abbott as well as John Howard for an international audience. You had the cover story in Spectator magazine on Tony Abbott shortly after he was elected to power. What is it about Abbott, and indeed what is it about Howard, that you find attractive on the international scene?

Well, I think that Abbott came to power almost accidentally because of the crisis involving Malcolm Turnbull and his decision to back a carbon tax. Now, coming to power accidentally is always a risk because, after all, you haven’t got plans laid in advance. I thought that he took power very effectively. He reshaped the party, brought it together; in a sense made a pact with Turnbull as well, and then showed enormous self-discipline for the next six years. That wasn’t easy …

Especially in opposition…

… in opposition. Now, has anything gone wrong? Well obviously, to some extent, some of his own supporters are upset over his decision not to take a stronger free speech line over 18C. That is an underlying problem, and there’s been some discontent on the right. People who never wanted him on the left have seen their opportunity. A number of minor things have come together and created this storm.

But it’s very important for political parties, for the senior members in them, in a sense for the stolid rank and file  who want the party to survive and stay in power, to warn their own wild men that, really, if this crisis continues, they could find themselves out of power, as other parties have done, for a decade.

I know you were close to Margaret Thatcher. What distinguished her from other British leaders and conservatives?

Well, it’s becoming clear, isn’t it, that if you look at Thatcher, if you look at Howard, if you look at Ronald Reagan, it is to have a clear policy which everyone understands, to make the arguments for it, for that policy to be in line with what a lot of the voters – not 100%, but 60% – support and believe, and to stand by it and be firm. Now that last bit is the hardest because it’s easy to pursue a policy that sounds attractive. But if it requires sacrifice, if there’s going to be a period in which it doesn’t seem to work, you’ve got to have a very strong constitution. You’ve got to have courage in order to go through the troughs, the slough of despond, and Reagan, Thatcher, John Howard and, we’ll see, maybe Abbott will do the same.

Thatcher was Prime Minister from 1979 to 90. She was brought down in controversial circumstances. She was basically challenged twice, not just in 1990 but in 1981. Tell us about those leadership challenges.

Well, the first one was two years after she was elected. Her government pursued a very tough policy, and the first effects were obviously very bad. There were a lot of bankruptcies. There was rising unemployment. There was no sign in the middle of ’81 the policy was working. She was the most unpopular Prime Minister in recorded history, and her opponents in the party, led by Edward Heath, challenged her and the policy at the 1981 Tory Party conference. And it seemed at the beginning to be touch-and-go, but a very strong performance, both by Mrs Thatcher and by Geoffrey Howe, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which they said, ‘Look, governments have been blown off course time and again. This time we are not being blown off course.’ Or as Mrs Thatcher famously said, ‘The lady’s not for turning.’ When she did that she got another year, and in that year, of course, we had the Falklands War, which she won, and all the statistics started to turn around, so that she won her biggest-ever election victory two years later.

And the economy boomed.

The economy boomed — and it wasn’t just the economy. The whole of society began to be more vibrant, more energetic, more entrepreneurial.

And yet she was brought down in 1990.

There are a lot of reasons for that, one of them being that she had been around a long time, and people just simply get tired of politicians who have been there forever.

On the other hand, consider the consequences for the Tory Party. Yes, they threw out their most successful leader since the Second World War, then they won an election. But the consequences of that defenestration of Mrs Thatcher meant the Tory Party was bitterly divided and constantly at war with itself for the next fifteen or sixteen years. Some people would say that they still haven’t fully got over the way that they dispatched Mrs Thatcher.

That’s a warning, I think, to people who think that by getting rid of a leader you can win the next election. Yes, you may win the next election, but the longer-term consequences may lose you office altogether.

One of the criticisms made of Tony Abbott is that he doesn’t speak to his backbench. Did she speak to her backbenchers much?

She did in the early days, and it was always harder for a women because she couldn’t really go into the Smoking Room, where a lot of the Tory MPs gathered, and sort of join in the drinking. And then she became a Prime Minister who was, in a sense, more engaged in foreign affair, so she was less in the Commons. Now this didn’t matter for a long time, but it began to matter when things turned sour in the opinion polls … she wasn’t able to call on the kind of loyalty — more the point, she didn’t exactly know what her backbenchers thought — and she suffered from that.

Well let’s conclude with British conservatism in the Cameron era. We are all too often told, John O’Sullivan, that Cameron is a more modern conservative. He’s cool, caring, compassionate – gay rights, green activism, progressive conservatism – this is the narrative from the Camerons, if you like. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who is author of The Strange Death of Tory England says that Cameron wants to remodel the Tories as a touchier-feelier version of Blairism. How’s it looking five years since he’s been in Number Ten?

That used to be the narrative. But it isn’t the narrative any more. Its toughened up quite strongly in the last few years. It is obvious that if the Tories are going to win the election, they are going to win the election for two reasons. One is that the economy would have recovered under them and they’ll get most of the credit for that. Secondly, because they are taking a tougher line on questions like immigration than the other parties.

Now, having said that, there are two things. One is that the earlier Cameronian conservatism midwifed the birth of UKIP, which is a real threat to conservatives. It is going to take probably something like 12% to 15% of the vote, mainly from the Tories, but not entirely. But the Tories suddenly benefit from something new as well, which is that in Scotland, which has been one of Labour’s heartlands, Labour is going to lose a lot of seats to the SNP. And that effectively means, almost by accident, or certainly unexpectedly, the Tories may end up as the largest single party in Parliament, in which case they would have a shout at remaining in government.

So how do you think things will play out in the election in a couple of months’ time in Britain?

That is completely impossible to say because, unlike almost all elections since the Second World War, this is an election in which the following parties will have a chance of winning seats in Parliament: the Tories, Labour, UKIP, Lib-Dems, SNP and Greens. You can’t predict an election on that.

There’s rising discontent with both major parties. Max Hastings, the distinguished British historian, made the point not so long ago that people are so fed up with both the British Labour Party and the Tories it’s a bit like Henry Kissinger’s old joke during the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s: it’s too bad both sides can’t lose.

That is certainly what a lot of people think, and for this reason: the political class is seen by most voters as represented by three major parties, the Lib-Dems, the Tories and Labour. And that means they are looking around for the Greens if you are on the left, or UKIP if you are on the right, as a kind of way of protesting against a political class which in Britain, as in Europe, doesn’t seem to be concerned about the things that concern them.

John O’Sullivan, thanks so much for joining Between The Lines. Enjoy your time in Australia