First elected to parliament in 1951, Harding's political rise was rapid, serving as a Whip, Chief Whip, Party Chairman, Education Secretary and Defence Secretary before he was 40. Harding stood for the leadership of the National Party in following their defeat in 1969 but lost to Philip Beauchamp. Following the National defeat at the 1972 general election Harding stood again, this time defeating Norman Morton to become National Party leader.
He became Prime Minister after winning a landslide victory at the 1977 election. During his first term Harding instituted stringent budget cuts in order to try to deal with inflation and a large budget deficit. Although the government was re-elected in 1980, Harding's majority was cut from 118 to just 12. Consequently Harding went about a sharp U-turn in terms of economic policies, cutting taxes and increasing spending in an attempt to stimulate economic growth and reduce unemployment.
Harding was challenged for the leadership of the National Party in September 1981 by Foreign Secretary Martin Lawrence. Although Harding survived his government was fatally weakened. In a last ditch attempt to save his premiership Harding called a snap election in February 1982, which saw the government defeated.
He remained a prominent voice in opposition, and served as shadow Foreign Secretary under Rodney Bowles. As an elder statesman Harding remained a constant critic of Megan Taylor from the backbenches, decrying her policies, particularly privatisation. He finally stood down from parliament at the 2002 election.
Eric Harding was born on May 1, 1927.
Early Political Career
Member of Parliament
He was selected as the National candidate for Bedford in 1948, but narrowly failed to retake the seat by just 604 votes. In 1951 he re-contested the seat, this time winning it with a majority of over 1000. He was the youngest member of the House, and subsequently gained the title of “baby of the house”. However, despite his youth, his promotion was relatively rapid, and after less than two years in parliament he was made a junior whip. He was re-elected MP for Bedford in 1954, but in a year where the Tories increased their majority nationwide he suffered a swing against him against the national trend, and his majority was cut to 300. The following year he became deputy chief whip, and in 1959 became chief whip. He gained the respect of many backbenchers, although his tendency to intimidate backbenchers did alienate some, especially considering he was barely 30. In 1957 he switched his seat to the safer neighbouring constituency of mid Bedfordshire.
By this time Harding was seen as the face of the future of the National Party, and indeed it was considered likely that he would receive a cabinet post in the Edwards administration. However, in a surprise move he was asked to remain as chief whip. In 1962 in an even more surprising move he was made National party chairman, with the responsibility for running the government’s 1963 re-election campaign. This was a major surprise since the role of party chair is usually given to an experienced cabinet minister. The appointment also gave Harding his first proper cabinet position (although he had attended cabinet meetings as chief whip, he had not been a full member). He ran an effective campaign, making the most of television for the first time and getting Edwards and other cabinet members to undertake tours of the nation, visiting not only marginal constituencies but also relatively safe Social Democratic areas.
The campaign was a great success, and saw the conservatives extend their majority despite being in power for 12 years. Harding was rewarded with the post of Education Secretary in the post-election reshuffle. He was not particularly well suited to the role, and frequently clashed with junior ministers and advisors over policy issues. After the 1966 election he was reshuffled to become Defence Secretary, a job he coveted and greatly enjoyed. He was the first Defence Secretary since 1920 not to have served in the armed forces, and at 38 the youngest in over 50 years. He established a good rapport with the general staff, and won particular praise for his strong (and successful) campaign for an increase in military pensions.
In May 1968 Edwards suddenly retired as Prime Minister. Some expected Harding to stand for the leadership but he flatly refused. He quickly endorsed Foreign Secretary John Cattermole, seen as the candidate of the right wing of the party, over Chancellor Philip Beauchamp, seen as the candidate of the left. Cattermole narrowly won on the second ballot, but contrary to expectations Harding was not offered a cabinet promotion and remained Defence Secretary.
The Nationals were swept from office in the 1969 election, ending 18 years of conservative government. Cattermole sought to continue and lead the National party in opposition, however Harding, in cooperation with Philip Beauchamp sought to engineer a coup. In a May 1969 meeting of the parliamentary party, Beauchamp suddenly announced his intention to challenge Cattermole for the leadership. Harding also stood for the leadership, seeking to attract right wing MPs away from voting for Cattermole and knowing that they wouldn’t vote for Beauchamp in the first round. The strategy worked, with Beauchamp winning a plurality of votes in the first round, Harding withdrew from the race, and Cattermole had no option but to resign outright as leader.
Harding was rewarded with the post of shadow chancellor, but soon conflicts began to emerge between him and the new leader. Whereas Beauchamp was a supporter of the Social Democrats “New Society” programme for an expanded and more comprehensive welfare state, Harding was an avowed opponent. The disagreement finally came to a head when Beauchamp sought to vote in favour of the government’s 1971 budget, it was a move that not only utterly alienated Beauchamp from Harding, but also a move that alienated him from a large majority of the National Party, including his own more liberal wing. Harding resigned in protest, seeking to help trigger a leadership contest. But no other contender came forward, and as such Beauchamp survived. Instead Beauchamp was forced to compromise, and offered National MPs a free vote on the budget.
The Nationals were roundly defeated at the 1972 general election, suffering a worse defeat than three years earlier. Beauchamp resigned outright as leader, and Harding handily defeated his successor as shadow chancellor, Norman Morton, to become National Party leader. Harding immediately set about reforming the party from within, reforming its internal structures to give greater power to central party HQ at the expense of constituency parties, and shifting the party politically to the right. Harding used tougher rhetoric to attack the Brown government, and by the turn of the year the Nationals were comfortably ahead in the polls.
Harding was confident of victory in the 1975 election, but the Social Democrats were returned with a narrow majority. However a succession of by-election defeats by the government resulted in the majority being whittled away within a year. It seemed another election was inevitable. Arthur Brown resigned and was succeeded by Jim Cox, who came to a confidence and supply agreement with the Liberals. The agreement lasted another year, but collapsed over proposals for the 1977 budget, resulting in a motion of no-confidence being passed against the government and an election. The National Party entered the election with a large lead in the opinion polls.
Harding led the Nationals to a landslide victory at the 1977 election, their best result since 1942, winning an overall majority of 118 seats and over 50% of the popular vote.
First Government 1977-1980
The government's first budget, presented in July, saw the tax cuts promised in the National manifesto introduced, as well as increased spending on the health system and pensions.
The oil crisis of 1978 caused a massive increase in the price of oil, that combined with recession and the lingering high inflation from the 1973 crisis caused a major economic crisis for the Harding government.
The 1979 budget was one of the most unpopular in English history and saw almost all of the 1977 tax cuts reversed, cuts to the health system, broadcasting service and local government, and an end to the free prescriptions introduced by the Brown government. By far the most controversial budget measure was the imposition of a new Goods and Services Tax. The budget was divisive within the cabinet, and Harding himself was concerned about the scale and pace of the cuts but reluctantly supported them out of economic necessity.
The public response to the budget was strongly negative and the government's approval rating dropped to an all time low of 26%.
Second Government 1980-1982
Harding remained in parliament following his defeat.