The general election of 2005 is starting to develop along curiously similar lines to 1987’s. A dominant ruling party is seeking a third consecutive election victory. The Prime Minister is no longer the electoral asset he was: furthermore, he is disliked, in some places hated, by an ever growing number of his own MPs. An obvious successor, just waiting for the moment to challenge, stands impatiently in the wings. The government campaign is in disarray, confronting a revitalised and at last technically competent opposition.
There is, however, one very sharp difference between the two election campaigns. Back in 1987 the Tory party was extremely well aware that Mrs Thatcher had become, in electoral terms at least, a menace. Party chairman Norman Tebbit, and the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, resolved to keep her out of sight. Their strategy was to try to remind the British people that they were re-electing the Conservative party, while somehow causing them to forget that this meant putting up with Mrs Thatcher too.
Of course there were various courtiers who intimated that Norman Tebbit was excluding Margaret Thatcher from the campaign in order to further his own nefarious leadership ambitions. This faction found a champion in the employment secretary Lord Young, and even recruited its own advertising agency, Young & Rubicam, which ingeniously discovered polling evidence that proved Mrs Thatcher was a tremendous asset. By the end of the 1987 general election the Conservatives were basically pursuing two parallel campaigns: the Young & Rubicam/Lord Young campaign, and the Saatchi & Saatchi/ Norman Tebbit campaign. The never-resolved conflict between the two led to the celebrated row in the Cabinet Office on ‘Wobbly Thursday’ when Young seized Tebbit by the shoulders and shouted, ‘Norman, listen to me, we’re about to lose this fucking election.’
The same battle is being fought in Downing Street today, only in reverse.