And so by train to Salisbury for Ted Heath’s funeral. He was the Party Leader when I first got into the House and had been a founder member of One Nation – a group of newly-elected Conservative MP’s who got together in the early 1950’s to define a postwar philosophy for the party. As its current Chairman, and one of his footsoldiers in the 1970’s, I wanted to say farewell.
I sat two rows behind a frail Margaret Thatcher - it was kind of her to come in view of the disobliging way Ted had behaved during her premiership. The cathedral was full and we all enjoyed some superb music, handpicked by Ted and sung by the choristers of the Cathedral who had postponed their summer holidays to take part in the service.
I first met Ted Heath when he asked us to dinner at No 10 before the ‘74 election. Our children had been excited by the prospect of their parents meeting the great man and had drawn a picture of a sailor on a boat. (They knew more about his triumphs on the ocean than on the hustings.) We presented it to him, and he presented it to his private secretary. When we lunched with him at his home in Salisbury not long before he died, we looked on his walls for this important work. In vain.
After losing two elections in 1974 under his Leadership, I reluctantly came to the conclusion that the Party wouldn’t win unless we had a new leader. While I admired his honesty and courage, he was difficult to sell on the doorsteps of Acton, my constituency at the time. So when Margaret Thatcher challenged him in 1975, I did not vote for him. In fact, in the first round, I didn’t vote for anyone. I was not sure about Margaret and wanted another round of voting, when other challengers might come forward if Ted was knocked out. He lost to her in the first round and withdrew and I then started a long tradition of voting for the losing candidate in a leadership election, supporting Willie Whitelaw.
At the time of the challenge to Ted, the supporters of the candidates would gave dinner parties to canvass support. As a hungry backbencher, those meals in February 1975 were very welcome. With some ten candidates now wanting to lead my great Party, I had hoped this tradition of hospitality might have been revived. But so far, there is no sign of it.
Contrary to his public image, Ted was a kind man with a great sense of humour. Yes, there was some obstinacy there but, if you want to be Prime Minister you need to be a touch obstinate. Less excusable was his unforgiving attitude to his successor who in effect carried out many of the reforms he had hoped to introduce during his brief Premiership.
After the funeral, tea was served in a marquee on the lawn of his home nearby. A generous host in his lifetime, he did not neglect his guests when he had gone.