It was December. The motivation factor among the leadership was to find a political fix that would unite a seriously divided party, and discussion in the parliamentary party centred around the idea that they might all abstain on the big vote. As the Chief Whip commented:
‘We would therefore not be approving it, but would not be seeking actively to frustrate its passage. This was not in itself a particularly honourable or logical position, but it was the only means of preserving party unity under the leadership’.
Perhaps, senior figures in the party reasoned, if only no-one went into the lobby in support of the measure, then those who were going to vote against would draw back from doing so. Feverish discussions continued for the next few days, right up until the final vote.
This is not, however, anything to do with tomorrow’s vote on tuition fees, but the dilemma faced by Willie Whitelaw as Conservative Chief Whip during the furore over whether or not back Harold Wilson’s Rhodesian oil sanctions in December 1965. Ian Smith had just declared a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain, and Wilson’s decision to impose oil sanctions on the illegal regime put pressure on the new Tory leader, Edward Heath.
A large group of his party wanted to oppose sanctions, while a slightly smaller, but equally vocal section wanted to support Wilson in the voting lobbies. Whitelaw’s solution was to abstain, but the policy ended in disaster: while the bulk of the party abstained, 31 Conservatives supported the sanctions order, 50 opposed it. In a typical Whitelawism, he blamed ‘rogue elephants’ (rather than elements) in the party for defying the instruction. Before he died, Whitelaw claimed that his ‘biggest failure as a Chief Whip was that I had a party in three pieces’.
This huge Conservative split was the largest to have occurred – either in absolute terms, or as a percentage of the parliamentary party – since 1945, when a similar three-way split occurred over the US loan. Some 47 Conservatives had voted against the Second Reading of the Bretton Woods Agreement Bill on 13 December 1945, with nine Conservatives voting in favour.
Even in Opposition a three-way split like the one over oil sanctions caused ill-feeling within the party. One pro-sanctions Tory MP returned home for the Christmas recess in a miserable mood. In a letter to his son, he wrote:
‘The whole Shadow Cabinet sat gutless on the front bench without voting either way … it was a black day for the Conservative Party, and a blacker one still for Ted Heath, with the party split in three. It was a result of lack of firm leadership from the start … of trying to appease everyone and to have it both ways … I am disgusted with the whole affair’.
And it caused merriment on the other side of the House. A gleeful Harold Wilson – always a politician to enjoy a tactical victory – sent a congratulatory note to his own Chief Whip, Ted Short:
‘To a great Chief Whip on the occasion of the three-way split’.