December 8, 2013
Did we get it wrong about Maggie?
Forget the legend. As prime minister she got away with less than most of them, says Andrew Alexander, the former Daily Mail political correspondent who knew her better than many people.
“Iron-willed, dictatorial, intolerant, bossy... some of the labels so readily applied to Margaret Thatcher always struck me as confusing and misleading,” said Alexander.
“That she could be iron-willed when cornered is not in dispute, whether the opponent was Argentine general Leopoldo Galtieri or the British Mineworkers Union,” Alexander continued.
“That she could and did belittle colleagues and TV interviewers is not in dispute either.”
But Alexander did point out some revealing reasons.
That iron will was mainly shown in pursuing policies that her Cabinet had approved collectively, but which some were inclined to desert when the going got tough. She rarely used that iron will to force her Cabinet into unwelcome decisions. Indeed, comparing her with other prime ministers, she probably got her own way less than most of them. In fact, on three issues — the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the European Single Act and membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), more commonly known as the “currency snake” — she foolishly allowed colleagues to overrule her deep feelings.
The reason for much of what Margaret Thatcher did is that she was a relatively junior Cabinet minister when she was catapulted into the leadership and was being watched by the world to see if she could survive in such a male environment. She was also being watched by her own supporters to see if she could stand up to Ted Heath, the previous member of her party to run the country as prime minister between 1970 and 1974.
Under the circumstances a certain assertiveness and manner was not surprising. Yet, as Alexander pointed out, this “intolerant” leader even kept appointing opponents to her Cabinet.
The ERM business also demonstrated Thatcher’s inability to get her own way. The willpower of her colleagues prevailed. In fact, they gave Thatcher an ultimatum to arrange a date for full ERM membership, knowing that she could not reveal this for fear of causing a major crisis. A tougher and perhaps more devious PM would probably have found a way of disarming her opponents (senior ministers Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, foreign secretary and chancellor of the Exchequer respectively) and ensure that the ERM membership was not kept.
But Margaret Thatcher allowed herself to be pushed around on this and some other issues. It is hard to imagine a foreign secretary and a chancellor of Exchequer like Howe and Lawson getting their way against former PMs such as Ted Heath, Jim Callaghan or Harold Wilson. The resulting reduction in interest rates involved in holding down a buoyant pound was the biggest factor in promoting the inflation which spoilt the final Thatcher years.
Alexander adds his own comments to the circumstances of Thatcher’s fall, apart from the well-known poll tax stance.
Howe, already resentful about his demotion by Thatcher from foreign secretary to the relatively unimportant role of deputy prime minister, thought that the declining popularity of the government and particularly Thatcher meant that the next election was lost. He decided, so to speak, to get off the train before it hit the buffers. He would then, with his warning words well remembered, be the natural successor to lead the Conservative Party after the defeat.
But then Michael Heseltine entered the fray. He wanted to be the next leader, provided he did not have to challenge Thatcher, as he thought he would lose. Howe, sensing Heseltine’s challenge, immediately challenged for the leadership and lost.
Alexander feels Thatcher would have won on the second ballot. Yet remarkably she asked all her Cabinet colleagues whether she should go on and decided to withdraw. Would any other PM have asked? Not much iron will there.