Beleaguered Margaret Thatcher faces unrest in the ranks

Tory shock for Maggie" and "Tories on the rocks." These were the arresting page one messages from two of the Conservative Party's most loyal Supporters -- the Daily Mail and the Sun newspapers -- the day the Conservative Party conference opened at Blackpool.

It had been a bad week for Prime Minister Margarete Thatcher (Maggie) away in Australia and other points East. The mice had been playing while the cat was away.

Mighty mouse Edward Heath, whom Mrs. Thatcher succeeded as party leader six years ago, had led the attack on her monetarist policies. But the loyal, looking for comfort, brushed it off as pique.

They couldn't brush off so lightly a critical pamphlet from 13 members of Parliament newly elected when Mrs. Thatcher came to power. Embarrasingly, two were junior recruits to her team in her recent "keep right" Cabinet reshuffle.

On conference morn came four more voices of dissent on House of Commons notepaper in a letter to, yes, The Times.

Worst of all for Mrs. Thatcher was the story behind the Mail's headline. Only 44 percent of the party faithful wanted her as leader, and 35 percent thought the Tories wouldn't win the next election.

There wasn't much joy, either, in another poll printed the same morning. For although 41 percent of Tory voters thought better of Mrs. Thatcher then they had in 1979, 59 percent of the wider electorate thought worse.

Then over the early morning airwaves came the voice of reassurance: "Debates at conference will dissipate misunderstandings." That was the word: "misunderstandings." Not a hint of a change of course. Speaking was Francis Pym , leader of the House of Commons, and a possible eventual successor to Mrs. Thatcher.

As for the cliches: The Tories are in "deep trouble," and this is the "most crucial" Conservative Party conference since the war. True.

Sacked Cabinet minister Norman St. John Stevas summed up much dissent in a fringe meeting on day one of the conference. Talk of "leaner fitter" industry was "callous chatter." "You may be leaner, but you're not fitter, if you're standing in a dole [unemployment pay] queue."

Unemployment is now the key issue with voters.

Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 after a Labour government that had been in partnership with the unions had lost its way. She seemed to offer a positive alternative to a tire, negative government.

Unemployment in the month before her victory was 1.3 million. It is now around 3 million, and the fear of unemployment and bankruptcy, now at record levels, has made people almost nostalgic for that tired old Labour government.

It's agreed that the Tories have had some success in curbing inflation, their main target. But the most reliable economic forecasters say that while inflation may continue to fall if the government doesn't change course, unemployment will rise catastrophically.

This would kill the Tories' already dim chances of being reelected for the second term they say they need to get things right. The Tories are traditionally the party of "the shires" and big business. But they can't gain office without a substantial blue-collar vote. At the last election a very big number of these voters went Tory for the first time.

Mrs. Thatcher needs to keep these voters if she is to stay in power. But they feel she has failed them on the issues that made them vote for her.

There's no more significant blue-collar electorate than the west Midlands. This is Britain's industrial heartland. The decline of British manufacturing industry -- the car industry in particular -- has hit it cruelly.

Before Mrs. Thatcher was elected unemployment was falling there. Now it's rising at twice the national rate.

The growing Tory fear is that this area, with its volatile voting patterns, will lose its volatility and become a rock-solid Labour stronghold -- like the heavy industry areas of Newcastle and the northwest, which have never quite recovered from the depression of the 1930s.

In spite of all pollsters say, hardcore Conservative voters want Mrs. Thatcher to keep right on -- but complain of failure to create new incentives through promised tax cuts. They've just had their dusty answer from Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe with a threat of tax increases if government borrowing can't be kept down.

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