Margaret Thatcher was ultimately betrayed by the senior members of the party she had led to three consecutive electoral victories while remaking Britain according to its manifestos. After more than 15 years of her leading the party, 10 years leading the nation, they were restless, ambitious, and soon conspiratorial. Her biographer Charles Moore reveals how the misdeed was done.
Figure 1. You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain
The opportunity arose because, though Thatcher was popular with the party’s grassroots voters, she had lost touch with the backbenches who formed her voting constituency – in Britain, the Prime Minister is similar to the Speaker of the House, who is elected by legislators, not average citizens. Thatcher had become and remained leader of the Conservative Party by employing skilled politicians who knew how to count, calm, and charm the votes she needed. As time went on and Thatcher went from political success to policy success again and again, she became less attentive to showing love to the backbenches, believing she had so obviously demonstrated why she was worthy. Tragically, Thatcher had lost her warning system to a pair of Irish Republican Army assassinations, first of Airey Neave, who had so brilliantly managed her first campaign, later of Ian Gow, who very capably managed the back bench mood through sustained drinking sessions. She never found another able ambassador or spy.
In addition to general feelings of being left out, backbenchers were specifically aggravated by a new tax – taxes being the most reliable source of conservative angst. Thatcher had long been frustrated with increasingly leftist local government: her father had been ousted from Grantham’s city council, her very first bill in Parliament had been to open up local council meetings to the press, and her stint as Education Minister was partly undone by local governments. As Prime Minister, Thatcher decided to do something about the source of local government funding: property taxation. Within local government, Moore notes that “those who made the greatest use of local government services – social services, for instance – were the least likely to pay for them.” Thatcher was more pithy: “The people who benefit don’t pay. The people who pay don’t benefit.” With only about 25% of people paying property taxes, 75% of voters were perfectly happy to increase their burden and enjoy the benefits of other people’s money. Besides, she was deeply offended by the notion that property was taxed at all: “Any property tax is essentially a tax on improving one’s own home,” she lamented.
Figure 2. Extensive testing has demonstrated that conservatives prefer practically any pain to new or increased taxes: the medieval rack, root canals, telemarketing pitches, tangled Christmas lights with that one broken bulb you need to find, wet socks, inconsistent wifi, grandchildren who never call
All of which, you might expect, would sound pretty reasonable for conservatives to embrace. But local governments still required some source of funding and so Thatcher, striving for the efficiency of what you vote for you pay for, proposed replacing the property tax with something new: a “community charge” paid by everyone, though perhaps not everyone would pay the exact same. This nod to progressive taxation proved hopelessly complicated to implement while the attempt to match revenue to spending meant that the average charge was much higher than expected, such that 90% of households saw their local tax bills rise by around 50%. Leftists rioted while conservatives loudly complained to their increasingly anxious members of Parliament. Disaster was predicted in upcoming local elections and the Conservative Party tried a desperate campaign of declaring “Conservative Councils Cost You Less” (because they spend less). Expected to lose 600 seats, they only lost 172 – which was great versus expectations, but not that good, and the bitterness over the whole affair lingered among the backbenches.
And yet if the backbenches had started to feel a lack of love, the front bench of senior leaders had always felt disagreeable, excluded, and badgered. Startlingly, Thatcher never really recruited into her leadership a core of true believers. From the very beginning, of her 24 member leadership team, only 4 had actually voted for her. Thatcher chose her team of rivals to achieve political balance and give her internal critics shared responsibility. Despite not watching any television herself, she cared far more about how well someone presented on the BBC than if they were completely committed to her agenda.
Figure 3. Bob the Builder would probably have been the perfect Thatcher Cabinet member. Can we fix it? Yes, we can!
This arrangement inevitably sparked tension – but for most of her tenure, Thatcher was enormously aided by Willie Whitelaw, a politician far more moderate than she who had been Ted Heath’s preferred successor. Whitelaw could have made no end of trouble for her but instead chose to be her faithful deputy: “Never interested in policy, he knew that his power lay in his capacity to understand what she wanted and what others wanted, and reconciling the two.” When Whitelaw retired, she lost the bridge that her wet, moderate Cabinet members used to justify their presence.
At the same time, Thatcher was also paranoid that if she cultivated potential heirs, her personal leadership would be more vulnerable – if she was the primary hero of the grassroots, then her rivals would hesitate. Toward the end, the Conservative Party tried to introduce a slogan “The Right Team for Britain’s Future” at a conference to direct attention away from her – but when she appeared, to the dismay of the “right team,” the conference went wild, chanting “Ten More Years!” But the backbenches, not the grassroots, were the key battlefield – and there was always danger that her Cabinet contained some of her most vehement opposition.
Because the Cabinet was filled with her internal political opponents, she excluded them from real power. She privately claimed “I’d be able to run this Government much better if I didn’t have ministers, only permanent secretaries,” i.e. the deep state who was legally obligated to follow her directions. The two most powerful people in her government were her national security advisor Charles Powell and communications director Berard Ingham – both very capable civil servants who would have thrived without comment in the United States, but in the British system elected politicians are constitutionally responsible for running all aspects of government. Being Foreign Secretary is one of the most prestigious jobs in the United Kingdom – but Thatcher tried to neuter the role so she could run her own foreign policy. Worse for her domestic political future, Powell was so dominant that he overloaded her schedule with fascinating foreign intrigues: plotting grand strategy with historians, having heart to hearts with dissidents, reviewing the skullduggery of the intelligence services. Ingham daily briefed her on the moods of the nation and theoretically had a mandate closer to protecting her power – but he was statutorily prohibited from helping her in an internal party squabble. All together, among the people she most trusted, her politicians most in touch with the backbenches had been assassinated, her deputy who had smoothed over riffs with her leadership had retired, and the men through whom she ran her government were not looking out for her survival.
If genuine disagreements over ideas weren’t sufficient reason to be unhappy, Thatcher had an incredibly harsh management style. She was very considerate of her personal staff – and, as the world’s most powerful woman, still insisted on making breakfast for her husband every morning – but she constantly berated, bullied, and browbeat the big egos who were the most senior elected politicians in her party. For many years this produced the remarkable results we’ve already discussed – but perhaps it worked too well: as “Thatcher had achieved many of her successes by going against the grain of most of her senior ministers, she came to believe in her own invincibility.” Moore concludes: “This was not good for her character. She talked even more; she listened less. She lost some of her ability to catch the political wind and some of the caution which, until the late years, had strongly balanced her crusading zeal. Combat became not so much a useful weapon in her armoury as her default mode.”
Figure 4. A popular satire of the time depicted the following scene: “Mrs Thatcher was asked by a waiter serving the Cabinet what meat she wanted. She answered, ‘A raw steak, please.’ Then the waiter asked, ‘And the vegetables?’ Mrs Thatcher replied, ‘Oh, they’ll have the same as me.’”
Eventually, the slights built up to an unbearable burden, especially for Geoffrey Howe, her longest serving Cabinet minister. Thatcher treated him mercilessly for his temperamental lack of stridency but he had actually been a powerful advocate of her economic policies as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Moved over to the foreign ministry, where he was annoyed to be constantly upstaged by Powell, Howe pursued his greatest passion: the United Kingdom joining the European Community. In this, Howe was supported not only by the British civil service, but by many Conservative backbenchers: somewhat strangely in retrospect, the Conservatives had always had the most pro-European platforms in British politics. Howe romanticized that a united Europe, at peace at last, could be an economic powerhouse freed of the complications of each country’s individual trade barriers and regulations.
Thatcher was deeply skeptical, fearing that integration would mean not more freedom but more regulation – and, worse, regulation imposed by an organization in which the British voter would only have a minority, perhaps super-minority, say. The perk of wiping out unhelpful European laws had to be balanced against the fear of losing British national sovereignty, especially the loss of determining the right monetary and immigration policies. Thatcher was horrified when Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, claimed that by 1998, 80% of “economic legislation, and perhaps even our fiscal and social legislation as well, will be of [European] Community origin.” She conceded that Britain was part of Europe culturally, but that Europe was not defined by its bureaucracy – and indeed, “Had it not been for [the] willingness to fight and die” of British troops “Europe would have been united long before … but not in liberty, not in justice.” Thatcher proclaimed “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
Figure 5. “Charles Powell recalled that, when, at European summits, she began to tire, he would bring her a surreptitious whisky and soda: ‘sure enough, it revived her spirits wonderfully.’ When Helmut Kohl got wind of this he said to Powell: ‘I wish you would stop doing that, you’re just making her more difficult.’ ‘To be honest, Mr Chancellor,’ Powell replied, ‘that’s the whole point.’”
Howe thought she was paranoid but also believed the rational way to head off her fears was to fully embrace Europe and lead from the inside. Determined as ever, Howe recruited the other most senior Cabinet minister, Nigel Lawson, his replacement as Chancellor, into a conspiracy. Lawson was actually skeptical of European integration himself but he had begun to lose faith in monetarism and was especially attracted to something called the exchange rate mechanism (ERM). The ERM attempted to stabilize European currencies’ values in relation to each other in order to ease cross-national transactions. For Europeans, this was the first step to union. For Lawson, this was an opportunity to outsource the fight against inflation to the German central bank, which had long had an international reputation for being hypersensitive to it. Together, Howe and Lawson repeatedly attempted to confront Thatcher, ultimately issuing an ultimatum that they would simultaneously resign – a public relations disaster – if she did not join the ERM. Thatcher was appalled: she retained her faith in monetarism and her skepticism about Europe. But faced with the threat, Thatcher sidestepped it: she publicly announced that the UK would join the ERM if the European community met certain preconditions respecting economic freedom and once Britain had sufficiently brought down its own inflation. That stance seemed pretty reasonable to the public and so the pair balked at resigning, prompting Thatcher to lord over them at the next Cabinet meeting: “No resignations yet, I see!”
Figure 6. As you’d expect, the extremely exciting topic of ERM is often confused with the very similar EDM
And yet, for the first time, the Iron Lady was seen to bend and the wets sensed weakness. Because Thatcher had no domestic policy equivalent of Powell, she did not have as fine a grasp of its technicalities and, amazingly, Lawson managed to use his power to tie the pound to the Deutschmark without publicly announcing nor privately revealing the shift from monetarism. When Lawson quietly resigned, he was replaced by John Major, an expert in-fighter who demonstrated his power by marshalling the building political pressure to compel Thatcher to concede to the ERM without the preconditions she had previously insisted upon. The European bureaucracy celebrated this unconditional victory with Delors projecting that there would soon be a United States of Europe. Thatcher was outraged and gave her renowned reply: “No. No. No.”
Figure 7. … the faster you’ll go!
For Geoffrey Howe, this was the last straw. “For him, ERM entry was the first move towards the destination, whereas Mrs Thatcher hoped it would be the way of preventing the full journey.” Already demoted from his beloved position as Foreign Secretary whose luxurious housing he could no longer use, Howe publicly resigned, giving a damning speech before a Parliament that had just introduced television cameras, increasing its notoriety. “The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long,” he declared. But the most important aspect of the speech was its timing: Howe delivered his searing critique just before the one time a year that the leader of the Conservative Party is subject to a challenge.
Within a day, Michael Heseltine, who himself had dramatically resigned from Thatcher’s Cabinet a few years prior and had been agitating against her since, announced his challenge. Thatcher was terribly ill-prepared. Her replacement for her assassinated managers was wholly inadequate: Peter Morrison had at one time been closely in touch with the back benches but had spiraled into alcoholism and was loyal to the point of severe over-optimism. Morrison thoughtlessly announced a campaign leadership team without consulting any of its members, prompting them to be irritated and less than enthusiastic about securing votes. Dividing members into descriptions of “Sound,” “Dodgy,” and “Untouchable,” Morrison was so off-base that he had Howe as “Sound” right up until the latter’s blistering resignation speech. Earlier, Thatcher had inexplicably given the job of chief whip, a position described as the Prime Minister’s Praetorian Guard, to a romantic Europhile close to Geoffrey Howe, inexperienced in whipping votes, and who did not even support her. Her previous whip, upon hearing the news, commented “That’s crazy. That’s the end of Margaret.”
Thatcher was arrogant. She had won three elections! She was extremely popular with the grassroots! She had decisively beaten a wet stalking horse in a previous challenge! And so she repeated Ted Heath’s mistake that had allowed her to rise in the first place: she did not ask for votes herself. Even more bizarrely, and again a reflection of Powell’s power, Thatcher was out of the country for the election. Her record did count for something: she won the ballot by 204 to 152. But according to the complicated rules, her victory did not constitute a big enough margin to win outright: she needed just two more votes.
Now blood was in the water. Thatcher disastrously decided to consult her Cabinet which, though technically her leadership team, probably had the most to gain from her departure: it was full of ambitious, belittled men who had had a hard ceiling on their ambition for 15 years. The most committed ideologue on her campaign team sensed danger and suggested Thatcher see them all at once and force them to commit to her publicly in the face of peer pressure. Instead, Thatcher listened to an old party hand brought into manage the crisis – but who secretly thought it was in the best interest of the party for her to gracefully leave. Thatcher saw her Cabinet one by one. Predictably, almost every one told her to resign.
And yet while a number of backbenchers were annoyed that she had not cultivated them nor asked for their votes, there were plenty of true believers who were appalled by the unfolding coup. She was the greatest leader the Conservatives had had in a generation – and she had, after all, won the first ballot! They tried to break in to see her but by the time they did, Thatcher had concluded that she could not go on with the majority of her Cabinet opposing her. Thatcher realized she had mismanaged the parliamentary party and decided to concede to try to choose her successor. And yet, because she hadn’t elevated enough true believers, the only viable option was the chameleon John Major. Thatcher would later describe the experience as “treachery – with a smile on its face.”
In retrospect, we can easily see Thatcher’s crucial management mistakes – but let’s not forget that she is the longest serving Prime Minister since the 1800s and that her style produced big results. On the issues that she cared most about, Thatcher has been almost entirely vindicated. The biggest exception may be the community charge that had prompted backbench angst – it was quickly repealed – but so was the ERM which Major had staked his political reputation on. “The British economy, no longer fettered by an artificial exchange rate for sterling, recovered quickly. But the economic reputation and political standing of the Major government did not recover.” Major would lose in a landslide to Tony Blair, a politician akin to Bill Clinton who had refashioned the old socialist Labour Party beholden to unions into a suave, moderate coalition embracive of Thatcher’s success with markets. Thatcher would half-complain, half-brag in retirement: “The trouble is that we converted our opponents.” In this, she was wryly commenting on the ongoing conflict in the Conservative Party about her legacy. Upon her death, David Cameron, a moderate successor as Prime Minister, quietly lamented her argumentativeness but kindly conceded that “many of those arguments are no longer arguments at all” – Thatcher had transformed British politics from a consensus of socialist sclerosis to a cross-partisan embrace of market economics.
The major remaining argument is the one that finally took her down: Britain’s role in Europe. With Brexit, British voters appear to have expressed their verdict – but we shall see if the United Kingdom follows the path suggested by Thatcher: model itself after its old colony of Singapore and strive always for ordered liberty. Here’s Moore with the last word:
If there was one uniting force in everything Mrs Thatcher did, it was her love for her country. All great political leaders have this in some form. Often, perhaps always, it is based on a heightened picture of the nation which they lead – a picture, of course, which puts them in the foreground and makes them embodiments of the nations they lead… What Mrs Thatcher loved in her country – its liberty, its lawfulness, its enterprise, its readiness to fight, its civilizing, English-speaking mission – was not always visible in the place she actually governed, nor was her love always requited. But great loves such as hers go beyond reason, which is why they stir others, as leaders must if they are to achieve anything out of the ordinary.
Figure 8. Click to buy Charles Moore’s three volume biography of Margaret Thatcher: Not for Turning (10/10); Everything She Wants (8/10); and Herself Alone (9/10). The first volume is the best. Once Thatcher becomes Prime Minister, Moore chooses to address her life by topic rather than chronology, which is probably best for understanding can be a bit jumpy. Charles Moore took over two decades and conducted hundreds of interviews to get this final product: altogether, the biography can be forgivably over-comprehensive, is sympathetic but frank, and hopefully leaves you inspired by her example.
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