In 1975 six men (the 'Ferrybridge Six') were dismissed from their jobs because of the introduction of the closed shop and were denied unemployment benefit. The then Secretary of State for Employment Michael Foot said that: "A person who declines to fall in with new conditions of employment which result from a collective agreement may well be considered to have brought about his own dismissal". Tebbit accused Foot of "pure undiluted fascism and [it] left Mr. Foot exposed as a bitter opponent of freedom and liberty". The next day (2 December) The Times first leader—titled "IS MR. FOOT A FASCIST?"—quoted Tebbit and argued that it was Foot's policy to take away rights and liberties from the individual and give them to corporate bodies and the state. It went on:
Mr. Foot's doctrine is intolerable because it is a violation of the liberty of the ordinary man in his job. Mr. Tebbit is therefore using fascism in a legitimate descriptive sense when he accuses Mr. Foot of it...The question is not therefore, 'Is Mr. Foot a fascist?' but, 'Does Mr. Foot know he is a fascist?'
During the Grunwick dispute—where there was strikes over pay, working conditions and the owner's (George Ward) refusal to recognise their trade union—there was a split in the Conservative Shadow Cabinet between the conciliatory approach of Jim Prior, the Shadow Employment Secretary, and Keith Joseph. Tebbit entered the dispute by making a controversial speech on 12 September 1977, where he said:
Inside Britain there is a...threat from the Marxist collectivist totalitarians...Just to state that fact is to be accused of 'union-bashing'...Such people are to be found in the Conservative, Liberal and Labour Parties. Their politics may be different but such people share the morality of Laval and Pétain...they are willing not only to tolerate evil, but to excuse it...Both Jim Prior and Keith Joseph know that George Ward and Grunwick are not perfect, nor was Czechoslovakia perfect in 1938. But if Ward and Grunwick are destroyed by the red fascists, then, as in 1938, we will have to ask, whose turn is it next? Yes, it is like 1938. We can all see the evil, but the doctrine of appeasement is still to be heard.
Tebbit was accused of comparing Prior to Laval and at that year's Conservative Party conference Tebbit attempted to avoid personalising the issue, and openly splitting the party, without retracting what he had said. Tebbit said of these differences: "I'm a hawk—but no kamikaze. And Jim's a dove—but he's not chicken".
During a debate in Parliament on 2 March 1978 Michael Foot labelled Tebbit a "semi-house-trained polecat" in response to a question from Tebbit. Later in the debate Tebbit asked Foot whether he would "put a bridle on his foul-mouthed tongue".
In the September 1981 Cabinet reshuffle, Mrs. Thatcher appointed Tebbit as Employment Secretary. This was seen as a shift to a 'tougher' approach to the trade unions than had been the case under Tebbit's predecessor, James Prior. Tebbit introduced the Employment Act 1982 which raised the level of compensation for those unfairly dismissed from a closed shop and introduced the requirement that where a closed shop operated it could only stay if 80% of workers voted for it in periodic ballots. It also removed trade union immunity from civil action for damages if it authorised illegal industrial action. In his memoirs Tebbit said that the 1982 Act was his "greatest achievement in Government".
In the aftermath of urban riots (Handsworth riots and the Brixton riot) in the summer of 1981, Tebbit responded to a suggestion by a Young Conservative (Ian Picton) that rioting was the natural reaction to unemployment:
I grew up in the '30s with an unemployed father. He didn't riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking 'til he found it.
This exchange was the origin of the attribution to Tebbit of the slogan On yer bike!. Tebbit is often misquoted as saying directly to the unemployed "get on your bike and look for work" as a consequence of his speech. He was always portrayed as a sinister, leather-clad bovverboy by the satirical TV puppet show, Spitting Image. The Professor of English at University College London, John Mullan, has written: "In Spitting Image and probably the middle-class imagination, Norman Tebbit was given an Essex drag on his vowels which he hardly possessed. He should speak in that way because of what he represented". The former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once remarked of Tebbit: "Heard a chap on the radio this morning talking with a cockney accent. They tell me he is one of Her Majesty's ministers". Dr Peter Dorey of the Cardiff University wrote: "...it was Norman Tebbit...who was perhaps the public face or voice of Essex Man, and articulated his views and prejudices".
In the post-election October 1983 reshuffle, Tebbit was moved from Employment to become Trade and Industry Secretary to replace Cecil Parkinson, who had resigned. Thatcher had actually wanted Tebbit to become Home Secretary but William Whitelaw vetoed this. He was seriously injured in the IRA's bombing of the Grand Hotel, Brighton during the 1984 Conservative Party conference and his wife, Margaret, was permanently disabled.
Tebbit was appointed Chairman of the Conservative Party in 1985 along with being Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster as Thatcher wanted to keep him in the Cabinet. During the Westland affair Tebbit was against the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation taking over Westland Aircraft. In 1986 Tebbit was against the American bombing raid of Libya from British bases and of Thatcher's refusal to fully consult the Cabinet on the matter. However, he did criticise the BBC for its supposed biased reporting of the raid. During the same year, he disbanded the Federation of Conservative Students, because he thought it was being taken over by people who he thought were too libertarian, and because they called for Harold Macmillan to be tried as a war criminal.
On 13 April 1986, Tebbit and his chief of staff, Michael Dobbs, visited Thatcher at Chequers to present her with the results of polling by Saatchi and Saatchi which found that with inflation down and the trade unions weakened, "the Prime Minister's combative virtues were being received as vices: her determination was perceived as stubbornness, her single-mindedness as inflexibility and her strong will as an inability to listen". Tebbit and Dobbs told her this was becoming known as the "TBW factor"; TBW standing for "That Bloody Woman". They recommended Thatcher taking a lower profile in the upcoming general election. Tebbit gave an interview a few weeks later with John Mortimer for The Spectator where he said of Thatcher: "It's a question of her leadership when our aims aren't clearly defined. When people understand what she's doing there's a good deal of admiration for her energy and resolution and persistence, even from those people who don't agree with her. Now there's a perception that we don't know where we're going so those same qualities don't seem so attractive". Thatcher disagreed and her biographer claims she was suspicious of Tebbit's motives. Furthermore, Thatcher commissioned the firm Young and Rubicam to carry out their own polling, which concluded that Thatcher's leadership was not the problem. Throughout the rest of 1986 and into the 1987 election Thatcher continued to use Young and Rubicam, which eventually caused tensions with Tebbit during the election campaign.
At the 1986 Conservative Party Conference in Bournemouth Tebbit—along with Saatchi and Saatchi, Dobbs and the Conservatives Director of Research, Robin Harris—came up with that year's Party slogan—'The Next Move Forward'. The Conservatives for the first time employed pre-conference advertising to publicise the new-style conference and Tebbit persuaded Thatcher that ministers would state their objectives they would achieve in the next three years. These would also be used by Saatchis to design [posters, leaflets and brochures to be deployed as each minister finished their speech. The aim "was that in 1986 the media should reflect the image I wanted – of a Government confident, united, clear in where it was going – and determined to get there". According to Tebbit the conference "was more successful than I had dared to hope...the opinion polls which had us 7% behind in June and still 5% down in September now put us back into first place – a position we never relinquished from then right through the election campaign. The Prime Minister's ratings were immediately restored".
For quite a while he was seen as Thatcher's natural successor as Party leader. During early 1986, when Thatcher's popularity declined in the polls, commentators began to suggest that the succession of the Conservative leadership would lie between Michael Heseltine and Tebbit. A MORI opinion poll in March 1987 saw Tebbit as second-favourite amongst voters as Thatcher's successor (15% to Heseltine's 24%); however, amongst Conservative voters, Tebbit was the front-runner with 21% (against Heseltine's 14%). In October 1988 MORI asked the same question, with similar results: Heseltine on 22% and Tebbit 15% amongst all voters but Tebbit leading with 26% (Heseltine 20%) amongst Conservative voters. However Thatcher apparently once told Rupert Murdoch: "I couldn't get him elected as leader of the Tory party even if I wanted – nor would the country elect him if he was".
On the 6 January 1987, the journalist Hugo Young published a quote attributed to Tebbit in The Guardian newspaper. Tebbit's chief of staff, Michael Dobbs, responded by writing a letter to the newspaper citing Young's dislike of Tebbit, adding "Perhaps this explains the invention of the quotation he [Mr. Young] attributed to Mr. Tebbit". The quote was "No-one with a conscience votes Conservative". Before this letter was published, however, the words "the invention of" had been removed. Despite publishing this letter The Guardian subsequently repeated the quote and Young again attributed it to him in a letter to The Spectator. Tebbit feared that if no action was taken against The Guardian the Labour Party would use this quote against the Conservatives in the upcoming general election. With Thatcher's consent Tebbit threatened the newspaper with legal action if they did not retract the quotation and apologise to Tebbit. The case continued until 1988 when the The Guardian apologised, published a retraction and paid £14,000 in libel damages in an out-of-court settlement.
During the 1987 general election, Tebbit and Saatchi and Saatchi spearheaded the Conservative campaign, focusing on the economy and defence. However, when on 'Wobbly Thursday' it was rumoured a Marplan opinion poll showed a 2% Conservative lead the 'exiles' camp of David Young, Tim Bell and the Young and Rubicam firm advocated a more aggressively anti-Labour message. This was when, according to Young's memoirs, Young got Tebbit by the lapels and shook him, shouting: "Norman, listen to me, we're about to lose this fucking election". In his memoirs Tebbit defends the Conservative campaign: "We finished exactly as planned on the ground where Labour was weak and we were strong – defence, taxation, and the economy". During the election campaign however Tebbit and Thatcher argued. Tebbit had already informed Thatcher at the beginning of the campaign that he would leave the government after the election in order to care for his wife. Thatcher said to her friend Woodrow Wyatt on the Sunday after polling day: "He'll carry the scar of that Brighton bombing all his life. I didn't want him to go. Whenever he is away from her he can't even attend to business properly. He's always ringing up to find out if the nurses are looking after his wife all right". In her memoirs Thatcher said she "bitterly regretted" losing a like-minded person from the Cabinet.
Tebbit was also prominent in an unsuccessful Conservative back-bench rebellion against the Bill to give 50,000 households (around 250,000 people) from Hong Kong British citizenship.
In April 1990 he proposed the "Cricket test", also known as the "Tebbit Test", where he argued that whether people from ethnic minorities in Britain should England Cricket team (rather than the team from their country of origin) should be considered a barometer - but not the sole indicator - of whether that are truly British.
Tebbit told Woodrow Wyatt in 1991 that he did not think immigrant communities would assimilate "because some of them insist on sticking to their own culture, like the Muslims in Bradford and so forth, and they are extremely dangerous". In August 2005, after the 7 July 2005 London bombings, which were carried out by three young men of Pakistani descent and one of Jamaican descent, Tebbit claimed vindication for these views.
In a conversation with Woodrow Wyatt on 19 December 1988, Tebbit said he would not go back into politics unless Thatcher "was run over by the proverbial bus and he didn't like the look of the person he thought might get her job and destroy the work they've done". On another occasion (22 February 1990) Tebbit said to Wyatt he would stand for the Conservative leadership if Thatcher suddenly resigned but when Alec Douglas-Home suggested that Thatcher would not stand at the next election because she must be tired, Tebbit disagreed: "She has got amazing stamina".
After Geoffrey Howe's resignation from the government in November 1990 Thatcher asked Tebbit to return to the Cabinet to be Education Secretary but he refused on the grounds that he was looking after his wife. During the 1990 Conservative Party leadership election Tebbit was on Thatcher's campaign team with the job of assessing her support amongst Conservative MPs. According to one of Thatcher's biographers, Tebbit was "her most visible cheerleader...who characteristically took the fight to Heseltine by holding a cheeky press conference on his Belgravia doorstep". After the first ballot but before the results became known, Tebbit wanted Thatcher to make a clear commitment to fight the second ballot if her vote fell short of the amount needed to win out-right. When Tebbit saw Thatcher on 21 November he told her she was the candidate with the best chance of beating Heseltine. However Thatcher withdrew from the contest the next day. Tebbit wanted to stand, but never did. Tebbit then switched his support to John Major.
Tebbit had formally accepted an invitation to speak at a Conservative Monday Club dinner in June 1991 on 'the Future of Conservatism'. However he sent a message to the Charing Cross Hotel, just one hour prior to the dinner saying that the Government Whips were demanding he (and all other Conservative MPs in the House) stay and vote on the Dangerous Dog Bill. It was the only occasion in the Club's history where someone had failed to honour their engagement. In September 2007 he addressed the club in the House of Lords.
After Major came back from Maastricht with an opt-out from the Social Chapter and the single currency, Tebbit was one of the few MPs to criticise the new powers the Community would acquire in the debate on 18 December 1991. He claimed the government had been on the defensive against "federalist follies" and that Maastricht had seen "a series of bridgeheads into our constitution, into the powers of this House, and into the lives of individuals and businesses".
Tebbit resumed his fight against the Maastricht Treaty. On 11 August 1992 Wyatt noted in his diary: "[Thatcher] also seems to have formed a new alliance with Tebbit who stirs her up and talks a lot of nonsense". At the October 1992 Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, Tebbit embarrassed John Major's government when he made a speech attacking the Maastricht Treaty. As he walked up onto the podium he was applauded by some sections of the audience. Holding aloft a copy of the Treaty, Tebbit asked the conference a series of questions about the Treaty; did they want to see a single currency or be citizens of a European Union? The audience shouted back "No!" after each question. Tebbit received a tumultuous standing ovation and walked into the centre of the Conference hall waving amongst the cheers. Gyles Brandreth, a Conservative whip, wrote in his diary:
"The talk of the town is Norman Tebbit's vulgar grand-standing barn-storming performance on Europe. He savaged Maastricht, poured scorn on monetary union, patronised the PM...and brought the conference (or a good part of it) to its feet roaring for more. He stood there, arms aloft, acknowledging the ovation, Norman the conqueror".
In his memoirs Major accused Tebbit of hypocrisy and disloyalty because Tebbit had encouraged Conservative MPs to vote for the Single European Act in 1986 but was now campaigning for Maastricht's rejection.
Tebbit privately said of Major on 17 November 1994: "He has the mulishness of a weak man with stupidity". When asked what would it take for him to support Major, Tebbit responded: "Have an entirely new department, the sole job of which would be to deal with the Brussels machinery in every aspect. I agree that we don't want to leave the EU, but we've got to manipulate it and block every single advance we don't like. No, no, no must be his weapon. Veto everything he disapproves of or that we disapprove of".
Speaking in the Lords on 26 November 1996, Lord Tebbit attacked aid to Africa, saying that most aid sent to Africa goes down a "sink of iniquity, corruption and violence" and does little to help the poor. A spokesman for the charity Oxfam said Tebbit's view was "simplistic and unhelpful". Later Lord Tebbit defended his statement that most money went "into the pockets" of politicians "to buy guns for warlords".
In a letter to The Daily Telegraph on 2 November 1998 Tebbit said homosexuals should be barred from being Home Secretary. A Conservative Party spokesman said Tebbit was "out of touch" and Hague's official spokesman said Hague disagreed with Tebbit.
In October 1999 he spoke out against the plans to abolish the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Tebbit said he was against throwing the Constabulary's name and badge "into the modernisation trash can" and that the RUC had been "the thin green line standing between bloody anarchy and the rule of law". Tebbit also mocked Blair's pledge at the Labour conference to "set people free": "He has set them free. More than 250 terrorists, bombers and extortionists. Kneecappers, kidnappers, arsonists and killers have been set free. But their victims remain imprisoned. Some are imprisoned within broken bodies. Some imprisoned in grief for their loved ones. Some imprisoned by death in their graves".
In an interview for the New Statesman magazine in June 2000, Tebbit praised Hague's right-ward shift and revealed that he had "never been a [Michael] Portillo fan". He also mused on not standing for the Conservative leadership after Thatcher's resignation: "When I look at what happened to the party, I tell myself that perhaps I failed in a duty. I suppose I am one of those who have it on my conscience that I allowed Mr Blair to become prime minister". When asked if he regretted also allowing Major to become Prime Minister, Tebbit responded:
"I helped him. If I'd opposed him, he wouldn't have been on the radar screen. I'd have been opposing Michael Heseltine. I had to make the decision quickly. I didn't want to go back on my word to my wife that I'd retired from front-line politics. How would it all work? Was No 10 suitable for someone in a wheelchair? All these things go through one's mind. Then if Michael had won...he would have had to ask me to join his government, and I didn't want that. I asked myself: why am I risking all this? And I made my decision...I might have been an absolute disaster in the job. It's possible. So I am left there. You can't rewrite it. You can't rerun it.
In an article for The Spectator in May 2001 Tebbit claimed that retired British security service agents from the Foreign Office had infiltrated James Goldsmith's Referendum Party in the 1990s and then later infiltrated United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Tebbit called for an independent enquiry into the matter.
In August 2002 Tebbit called on the then leader of the Conservatives, Iain Duncan Smith, to "clear out" Conservative Central Office of "squabbling children" who were involved with infighting within the Party. He named Mark MacGregor, a former leader of the Federation of Conservative Students which Tebbit disbanded for "loony Right libertarian politics", as one of them. Then in October the same year Tebbit accused a group of Conservative "modernisers" called "The Movement" of trying to get him expelled from the Party. Tebbit said that The Movement consisted of a "loose" grouping of thirteen members who had previously supported Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo for Party leader. Duncan-Smith subsequently denied that Tebbit would ever be expelled and Baroness Thatcher publicly said she was "appalled" at attempts to have Tebbit expelled and telephoned him to say that she was "four square behind him".
In February 2003 Lord Tebbit, speaking to an audience of the Chartered Institute of Journalists at London's Reform Club in Pall Mall, urged journalists to reject political correctness in favour of "open, honest and vigorous debate". He blamed "timid" politicians, including members of his own party, for allowing PC language and ideas to take hold in Britain by default.
On 30 January 2006 he accused the Conservative Party of abandoning the party's true supporters on the Right, and opposed the new Leader David Cameron's attempts "to reposition the party on the 'Left of the middle ground'".
In March 2007 he became patron of the cross party Better Off Out campaign which advocates British withdrawal from the EU. Tebbit issued a statement explaining his support:
"From being a supporter of British membership of the Common Market in 1970 I have come to believe that the United Kingdom would be Better Off Out of the developing European Republic of the 21st century. We British have a thousand year history of self-government. We have been free and democratic longer than any other nation. The European Union is too diverse, too bureaucratic, too corporatist and too centralist to be a functioning democracy. We are happy to trade with our European friends and the rest of the world - but we would prefer to govern ourselves.
In an interview with The Times in September 2007 Tebbit said the Conservatives lack somebody of the standing of Thatcher and claimed that although it did not matter if Cameron's team were educated at Eton "what a lot of people will suggest is that they don't know how the other half lives. David and his colleagues — the very clever young men they have in Central Office these days — are very intellectually clever but they have no experience of the world whatsoever. He has spent much of his time in the Conservative Party and as a public relations guy. Well, it's not the experience of most people in the streets. That's the real attack and that's damaging to him, I think".
In February 2008, after a sympathetic magazine article written by shadow education secretary Michael Gove, Tebbit publicly criticised what he characterised as "the poisonous tree of Blairism" which he claimed had been "planted" in the Conservative Party front bench.