Page last updated at 11:05 GMT, Sunday, 28 March 2010 12:05 UK

Glory and despair on the campaign trail

By Michael Dobbs
Presenter, Radio 4's From Glory to Infamy

As a senior adviser to both Margaret Thatcher and John Major, novelist Michael Dobbs was at the heart of Conservative Party election campaigns for two decades. He reflects on the turning points, the exhilaration and the despair of the contests he witnessed at first hand.

I was on tour with Margaret Thatcher during the 1979 election, and we were in Edinburgh having a quiet dinner when the telephone rang.

The newly-elected Prime Mininster Margaret Thatcher surrounded by reporters outside Downing Street
Margaret Thatcher fought to run the 1979 campaign on her own terms
The greybeards back at Conservative Central Office had noticed a wobble in the polls.

So they wanted her to go back to London and appear with Ted Heath, the man she had ousted as party leader four years earlier.

It was meant to be a gesture of party unity, but Ted and Margaret loathed each other. She said no.

Yet the greybeards persisted, and she grew furious. It was as if the men back at party headquarters were saying she could not win on her own merits. They wanted her to compromise.

These men were her closest colleagues, and it would have been easy for her to bend a little and go along with them. Instead she rushed from the room.

It was the first time I saw her in tears - tears of anger and, I suspect, of vulnerability. She had a choice to make, and she made it.

There would be no compromise, no joint appearance with Ted. She was going to do things her way, no matter whom she upset.


Elections are not just about dry statistics. They are about raw passions, and about how well political leaders control their emotions.

In 1992, as the campaign entered its final week, it seemed Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, was set for a famous victory.

Labour leader Neil Kinnock at the 1992 election rally
Neil Kinnock later regretted the triumphalism of the 1992 Sheffield rally
The problem was he let it show.

Just a week before polling, he flew to a rally in Sheffield to be greeted ecstatically by 10,000 of his most loyal troops. The atmosphere was triumphant.

And then came a memorable outburst of emotion and exuberance that many believe cost him the election.

He seemed to take victory for granted. And all the careful preparations, all those years of planning, were swept aside in an instant.

In direct contrast, at that same election, and in the face of seeming defeat, John Major decided to ditch his carefully organised campaign and trust to instinct.

He jumped on a soapbox in the marketplace, braved the hecklers and several eggs, and asked for his job.

I think that was one of the reasons he won. It was an emotional side of John Major that he had seldom let the public see.


Yet politicians are rarely in control, and elections are occasions of political violence. During 1983 Margaret Thatcher, fresh from victory in the Falklands, seemed on the brink of victory in that election, too.

Then on a BBC television programme she ran into Diana Gould, a geography teacher.

In an unforgettable confrontation, she managed to give the prime minister a thoroughly forensic going-over about the sinking of the Argentine cruiser, the Belgrano.

Jeremy Thorpe
The 1974 elections marked the high point of Jeremy Thorpe's career
It left Mrs Thatcher protesting that only in Britain could a prime minister be asked questions like that.

Increasingly elections are about the leaders - and leadership is a lonely job. It is also exhausting.

By the time polling day comes, those involved are usually emotionally and physically worn out. And it gets to them. Power seems within their grasp. And yet their ever-present fear is that it could all be snatched from them.

When, after the February 1974 election, there was a hung parliament, the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe went to Downing Street to discuss a possible coalition.

He seemed on the verge of real power. Yet the negotiations came to nothing. And already there were whispers about a sex scandal that would destroy his career.

'Wobble Thursday'

The personal burdens, the late nights, the exhaustion - they wear down almost all leaders. In fact, frequently they are ill.

And more often than we realise, they come close to collapse.

It was clear to Ted Heath's closest friends that in 1974 he was gaining weight and slowing down. They did not know it but he was suffering from a thyroid problem.

Some think that contributed to the way he hesitated about calling the election - he would not, could not decide. That hesitation arguably cost him victory.

John Major addresses the crowd on a soapbox during the 1992 election
John Major was praised for taking the initiative during the 1992 campaign
Even his old foe the Iron Lady was not immune.

In 1987 Mrs Thatcher was heading for another handsome victory.

Then, a week before the country voted, a rogue opinion poll showed a dramatic fall in her lead. That day became known as "Wobble Thursday".

During a very private meeting at party headquarters I saw Margaret Thatcher as I had never seen her in all the ten years I had worked for her. She was more than furious, she was almost frothing.

The metaphorical handbag flew around the room. She was overwhelmed by the thought she might lose, that all the years of glory were about to come to an ignominious end.

When we came out of that room her deputy, Willie Whitelaw, turned to me and said: "That is a woman who will never fight another election campaign". Extraordinary words - and extraordinarily prophetic.

'Loneliness and tears'

She won the following week, of course, in a landslide. But three years later her own MPs voted her out. She shed more tears then but that time the whole world was watching.

Tony Blair holds a copy of the 1997 Labour election manifesto
Tony Blair swept to a landslide victory in 1997 after a polished campaign
What none of us realised on that dreadful "Wobble Thursday" was how much physical pain Margaret Thatcher was in.

She had been suffering from agonising toothache, but she had hidden it.

That, and night-after-night of sleeplessness, had worn her down, very close to breaking point. I saw Margaret Thatcher in - and I saw her successor John Major out. I was part of his team in 1997.

The Tories knew their time was coming to its end. No one was listening.

Not even the soapbox could come to our rescue!

I spent much of that campaign wandering around 10 Downing Street, listening to echoes, peering into every corner and cupboard, stocking up on memories - and, yes, feeling miserable.

That misery is felt more acutely by many former prime ministers. Leaders are born to the sound of applause but so often they find their end in loneliness and tears.

From Glory to Infamy will be broadcast during The Westminster Hour on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 28 March at 2245 BST. Or listen again via the BBC iPlayer.

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