A conspiracy unmasked

‘Margaret Thatcher was a leader they had never wholly accepted; a radical, an outsider, a loner’

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Margaret Thatcher on November 22, 1990, leaving Downing Street for the last time (©KEN LENNOX/MIRRORPIX)

Despite having no instinct for organisation and never using the jargon of modern business management, Margaret Thatcher had extraordinary political instincts. These are a central theme of  Herself Alone, the third volume of Charles Moore’s insightful biography. She believed the 1987 general election was won on the basis of “simple truths” about inflation, tax, ownership and free enterprise. What emerges from the first five chapters and three or four subsequent ones (there are 24 in all) is that the 1987 Conservative manifesto set the domestic policy agenda for the whole of her third term. It was a strategic document prioritising control of inflation, supporting enterprise, reforming education, health and broadcasting, privatising the monopolies of gas, electricity and water, and grappling with the problems of inner cities such as crime, unemployment, racial tension, public sector housing and family breakdown.

Many of these policies were hard fought because they were radical. Greater choice for parents, different kinds of schools, and regular tests at ages seven, 11 and 14 meant downgrading local education authorities. Privatisation became a more complex challenge because introducing competition into monopolies such as electricity, water and gas required major structural changes. The creation of NHS trusts and the purchaser-provider split challenged a huge and unwieldy institution. New ideas for the inner cities clashed with those of left-wing local councils. In all this she worked closely with colleagues who were not naturally on her side of the party such as Kenneth Baker, Kenneth Clarke and Peter Walker.

In many respects these policies have all lasted the test of time. They showed that Thatcherism had a social dimension. It was not simply concerned with free markets, low taxes and limited government but with the plight of people living in run-down housing estates plagued by crime, drug abuse and vandalism, with parents who had aspirations for their children limited by the schools they could send them to, or young men leaving school without qualifications in areas which, because of mine, mill and factory closures, had no jobs. I believe concern with inner cities was largely a response to the Anglican report Faith in the City published in late 1985. It was highly critical of her policies on poverty, crime and lack of jobs; she felt it personally.

Moore describes the role played by the No. 10 Policy Unit, which I headed. The instincts for new policies were almost entirely Mrs. Thatcher’s. The Unit helped translate them into practice whether through legislation or moral support. It was very much hers. If we felt she was wrong, we would challenge her and she would love the argument. What surprised me most was although she was very clear in her instincts for reform, she was surprisingly full of doubt as to how it might be done. The Unit’s success depended on the fact that it was small, with only nine members; that four of those had practical private sector experience in helping to run businesses; that none of us spoke in public, only the Prime Minister did that; that two of its members were seconded civil servants, because it was important to work with not against the Civil Service; and that all of us recognised that we should “know our place”. We were not elected, we had not spent years attempting to get a seat in the House of Commons and then worked hard to retain it, and so we should treat Ministers with respect, even though the advice we offered the Prime Minister might be critical of their policies. We always knew that our first responsibility was to the Prime Minister, but equally that our job was to build not a fortress in Downing Street but bridges to other departments.

Thatcher’s Christian faith was discussed by Moore in his previous volumes and features again, rightly, in this one. He mentions it in connection with the number of practising Christians who worked for her (seemingly by accident rather than design—there were always other secular reasons for their appointment); with the place of church schools and religious education in the 1988 Education Act, standards of decency in broadcasting; with the appointment of George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury; with her speech to the Church of Scotland; and with her remarks to Le Monde on the bicentary of the French Revolution. She said the roots of freedom lay not in France but in Greece, and more importantly in Judaism and Christianity as “the only religions which regarded the individual as extremely important”.

It is impossible to understand Mrs Thatcher’s view of politics without taking account of her faith. As a young girl she had made a personal commitment as a Methodist to make the Christian faith her own and to take it seriously. This meant not only religious observance but exploring its implications for science, politics, economics and society. She read and re-read the Bible as well as Christian thinkers such as Wesley, Temple and C.S. Lewis, and politicians such as Wilberforce and Shaftesbury. Before a parliamentary recess she would ask for theology books. She loved ideas and discussing them.

But she was circumspect in the relationship between her faith and practical politics. She was conscious of having married a divorcé; a courageous step at the time. She never wished to be accused of using her faith to win votes. She never believed Conservatism was the only political position compatible with her faith. She accepted that issues such as abortion were personal. Her faith however provided her with a framework of a created, natural order, a respect for the dignity, responsibility and freedom of choice of each person, and a sense of justice. For her, faith was a call to action.

While she worked reasonably well with colleagues in the social field this was not so in the conduct of economic and monetary policy. Moore describes in great detail the deteriorating relationship between herself, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson during her third term. The ostensible issue was joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) of the-then European Economic Community, which would peg sterling to the Deutschmark. But the larger questions were the relationship between Britain and Europe, the relationship between a Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer when it comes to policy differences, the way in which a senior No. 10 private secretary from the Foreign Office, Charles Powell, should carry out his professional responsibilities and the personal chemistry between the three of them.

One problem was that she had never had real regard for Howe. She thought him weak, too patient, always looking for a point of agreement and married to someone (Elspeth) she just did not like, something which was mutual. Elspeth thought she had humiliated Geoffrey mercilessly and far too often. Nigel Lawson she thought was intellectually brilliant, a powerful presenter and prepared to go into battle whenever necessary. However he had one fatal flaw, he was a gambler. “Brian,” she once told me, “I cannot trust Nigel because I know he will take risks with our economy and we shall have inflation again.” Indeed we did. Moore does not shy away from recognising her very substantial weaknesses: she could be strident, impervious, fierce, high handed and divisive. More of that later.

Alan Walters, her independent economic adviser, was absolutely right to argue that the ERM was “half-baked”: exchange rates were neither fixed not floating, and therefore wide open to speculative attacks. That the British economy’s structure was different to Germany’s only worsened the problem. As time went on Howe and Lawson joined forces, plotted together against her and sought to ambush her. Ultimately both resigned, fatally weakening her government. Howe’s resignation was far more politically serious than Lawson’s because he had been with her from the beginning and was widely respected in the party. Moore calls his resignation speech in the Commons “an oratorical masterpiece and hugely damaging”.

From my experience of these years and from the new information provided in this book, my judgment was and remains that she had humiliated Howe so often that he was bound to snap, but with unforeseen viciousness and fatal consequences; that Lawson could not expect to conduct a financial policy totally contrary to the Prime Minister’s views; that Powell was totally out of control and that as a professional civil servant he had a higher duty than just to serve the Prime Minister, which he refused to accept; that Butler as a person of the utmost integrity made the right call for him to be moved but was overruled by herself; and that her parliamentary private secretary, Peter Morrison, was an incompetent who should never have been appointed in the first place.

Moore records thoroughly the surprising origins of the challenge to her leadership, from the Whips office and cabinet members including John Major. On the basis of the evidence he has unearthed, he finds the only possible explanation is that “Mrs Thatcher’s removal was the result of a conspiracy”; not by a tiny band of extremists but by a “wider, looser, virtually all-male club whose habits of mind were profoundly different from her own”. She was a leader they had never wholly accepted; a radical, an outsider, a loner.

Moore even-handedly concludes, however, “that they were not necessarily wrong to do so”. Her affection and loyalty to those who worked for her contrasts sharply with her treatment of those who worked with her. To the latter she could be pigheaded, sniping, insufferable, rude and ungenerous. After more than 11 years, colleagues were sick of her. It was a tragedy of epic proportions. The defectors and plotters “created an unforgettable, tragic spectacle of a woman’s greatness overborne by the bitterness of men”.

The rest of the world was dumbfounded by the public assassination of one of Britain’s most successful leaders. In chapters which I have not discussed in detail Moore shows how she had helped end the Cold War, bring democracy to Eastern Europe, enable the unification of Germany (despite her reservations), lead the response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and create the new South Africa.

The last few chapters, beautifully and sensitively written, are the saddest and most moving in this masterpiece of a book. On leaving office she was broken, “very wobbly”, not knowing where to live or what to do, with no office. In time she recovered but suffered a series of small strokes, the loss of Denis and a gradually fading memory. Her family did not support her well. Mark was arrested and needed to be bailed out; her relationship with Carol was distant to say the least. She received the highest honour from the Queen, the Order of the Garter. The monarch also attended her 70th and 80th birthday parties.

Moore was privileged in having unique access to both the papers and the people needed to get to the heart of the story. Cabinet secretaries and other officials have spoken to him with unprecedented candour, making the book a page-turner. From my own close relationship with Mrs Thatcher for five and a half years, I can say he really understood her: as a person of strong convictions, radical, clear vision, great leadership qualities, a strong faith and a deep love of country. As Walters once told me, it will be a very, very long time before we see someone like her again.