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Britain's government: weathering the Westland crisis

BRITISH Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has momentarily won Conservative Party backing on her government's handling of the sale of the ailing Westland helicopter company. But the extent to which she can regain the support of the troubled British electorate remains quite another matter.

That will depend on whether she can change her strong-willed personal style of government, as well as on her government's management of the British economy during the months ahead.

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The so-called Westland affair, it needs to be underscored, is the surface event -- the outward blip, if you will -- of much deeper managerial and economic challenges now facing Britain and thus, indirectly, Mrs. Thatcher.

The brouhaha over the Westland incident in the House of Commons this week involved the release of a secret letter damaging to one of the two top government officials who resigned over the case, former Defense Minister Michael Heseltine. Mrs. Thatcher, defending her own personal integrity, told Parliament that she did not know of the decision to release the letter, although she conceded that her government had mishandled the incident. Her fellow Tories rallied behind her assertions, backing her by a solid 160-vote margin.

Mrs. Thatcher is off the hook, for now at least. Whether the Westland case is now over, as she suggested after the vote, seems unlikely, given the opposition Labour Party's apparent intention to keep the case in the public arena.

Westland PLC, close to financial collapse, is Britain's only remaining helicopter firm. Mrs. Thatcher prefers that the company, on its own, select an overseas partner to help refinance and revitalize the firm. The likely winner is a linkup of a US company and an Italian company, United Technologies and Fiat. Mr. Heseltine, however, has leaned towards a European consortium.

Clearly, Mrs. Thatcher has been wounded by the Westland incident.

Her prickly, strong-willed style of government -- seen as a plus in the early days of her government as her Conservatives sought to trim back Britain's extensive welfare state and the power of trade unions -- is increasingly perceived as imperious and inconsistent with the traditional British concept of collective leadership in Parliament.

Moreover, the problems of a small defense firm -- in this case Westland -- draw attention to Britain's overall mixed economic performance.

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Unemployment continues to run high, with no major relief in sight. Private-sector investment is falling off. So too are oil receipts, given the oil glut and the recent sharp drop in price. The continued fall in oil prices, although pushing down the value of the pound and momentarily aiding exports, is expected to hurt in the long run in terms of lost revenues and thus perhaps threaten Tory hopes of a new round of major tax cuts before the national elections in 1988.

Mrs. Thatcher has proven herself highly resilient over the years. She weathered criticism during and after the Falklands crisis (also a high point of personal popularity for her) as well as for what was regarded as her government's callous handling of the miners strike and last year's racial altercations.

But now, as she looks toward what she says will be a third term after 1988, signs mount of public wariness of her abrasive political style as well as her conservative market-oriented economic policies.

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