Forty years ago Margret Thatcher walked into Downing Street and formed her first government. Sitting around the cabinet table for their first meeting were men (and it was all men apart from the Prime Minister) most of whom had already had a life of real achievement.
Three had won a Military Cross for bravery during the Second World War and there were 4 others who had also served in the conflict. There were successful businessmen such as Michael Heseltine who had set up Haymarket Publishing and become a millionaire in his 30s. Others had already served in high office including Peter Walker who had been Environment and then Trade and Industry Secretary. Lord Soames had served as Secretary of State for War, Foreign Secretary and British Ambassador to France. Keith Joseph had not only held office as a Minister under Macmillan and Douglas-Home but was respected as a deeply intelligent (and controversial) thinker about policy coming forward with ideas to promote the free market and individual freedom. Key Thatcherite policies such as privatisation, curbing the power of the trade unions and monetarist economic policy were derived from his stable of innovative policy thought and the think tank that he and Thatcher set up in the mid-1970s.
The youngest was David Howell aged 43 and none could be accused of being purely professional politicians in the sense of always having worked in or around politics.
Margaret Thatcher herself had worked a chemist, trained as a barrister and had already served just under 4 years as a cabinet minister as Education Secretary under Ted Heath.
As they met to agree the policies that would form the hallmark of the new government there was a clear direction that had been set out principally by Thatcher and Joseph in Opposition. That was to set a very different course than the one that had prevailed over the previous 15 years at least, arguably since the war, and manifestly different than the Labour government that had lost the 1979 election after a period when the UK had encountered severe economic problems.
Fast forward 40 years to today’s bickering cabinet which appears to have no direction and to a bunch of Conservative leadership contenders of which very few, if any, would have stood a chance of being included in the 1979 cabinet let alone being considered as a credible candidate for Prime Minister. What claims to stature or innovative policy thinking can any of them make? Which of their CVs would be considered as remotely as impressive as those sat round the same cabinet table 40 years ago? The only principles on display from most of the contenders are those of adapting your views and saying whatever is thought necessary to appeal to the ultimate arbiters in the leadership competition; the party members.
It is hard to pinpoint the exact cause of the huge decline in the calibre of politicians (the problem is not just restricted to the Conservatives but is highlighted by them because of the leadership competition). Clearly becoming an MP has become an unattractive option for those who have already achieved much in their life (with a few exceptions). Does the fault lie with a shrinking and increasingly, deeply, unrepresentative Conservative Party membership or a perceived need to take on younger people at the expense of those with more experience?
For whatever reason, heavy weight is most definitely one adjective that will not be applied to the line-up for the Conservative leadership crown and the likes of Howe, Biffen, Joseph, Whitelaw, Carrington, Soames, Maude, Hailsham, Pym and the Lady herself must be spinning in their graves with worry for the future of their Party and indeed the country.