Maggie: Her Fatal Legacy, by John Sergeant

If only Hezza had worn nice jumpers
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The Independent Culture

Margaret Thatcher dominated John Sergeant's career in broadcasting. Five years into his three decades at the BBC, she became the leader of the Conservative Party. He followed her round the world, even crawling through the feet of a crowd to obtain her first radio interview as Prime Minister. As the recently retired political editor of ITN, he managed to interview all the key players - apart from the lady herself - in the course of researching this book.

Margaret Thatcher dominated John Sergeant's career in broadcasting. Five years into his three decades at the BBC, she became the leader of the Conservative Party. He followed her round the world, even crawling through the feet of a crowd to obtain her first radio interview as Prime Minister. As the recently retired political editor of ITN, he managed to interview all the key players - apart from the lady herself - in the course of researching this book.

Unfortunately, it does not deliver the study of the devastation left behind by the great she-elephant that the snappy title leads the reader to expect. Instead, Sergeant spends almost all of his book going over well-trodden ground, telling the history of the Conservative Party from its triumph in 1979, through to its uneasy times under John Major and its parlous state since.

There is still much to amuse: the curious willingness of Mrs Thatcher's first chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, to put up with her belittlement of him, for instance. On a foreign trip, Sergeant recalls Howe being pulled to the press corps section of the plane by the Prime Minister. "What," she asked the assembled hacks, "do you think of Geoffrey's new sweater?"

Sergeant provides an insight into Mrs Thatcher's thoughts about who should succeed her. On the eve of her resignation, after she had failed to win an outright victory over Michael Heseltine in the first round of the party leadership contest, the Labour MP Frank Field went to see her to urge her to "get her candidate into the ring". "Who is my candidate?" asked Thatcher, according to Field. "It's John Major, surely?" he replied. "John Major... he's very young," was her uncertain response. On Heseltine, she was on surer ground. "He's a very bad man, Frank," she told Field.

Sergeant doesn't get round to saying just what Margaret Thatcher's "fatal legacy" is until the last chapter. I suspect it's because he has a soft spot for his subject. Early in the book, he admits that he was "not immune to the effect" Mrs Thatcher could have on men. It was, he writes, "almost sexy". So when I read his take on the relationship between Heseltine and his boss - "the plain fact is they didn't fancy each other" - I found myself wondering: but did Sergy fancy her?

This chatty book doesn't seem to be aimed at the serious student of politics, who may pick up on Sergeant's reference to Francis Maude being Norman Lamont's deputy in 1992. The Chancellor's deputy is the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, a position then held by David Mellor, not Maude, who rose instead to be Financial Secretary. A small difference, but a crucial one, since the former is a cabinet position and the latter is not.

When Sergeant gets round to addressing his book's title, his line is that out of office Mrs Thatcher hardened her views and gave cover to the rebels who destabilised John Major's premiership over Maastricht. She intervened in the subsequent leadership elections, acting on the basis of ABC - Anyone But (Ken) Clarke - and refused to accept that she was dumped because she had become an electoral liability. Her supporters, according to Chris Patten, have made the Tories unelectable by their preference for a "diet of unpopular populism".

This conclusion is rushed through at the end of a readable, although not hugely revealing, narrative. Before beginning this project, Sergeant asked Patten if he would mind talking to him about Mrs Thatcher. "Oh yes," replied the former Tory chairman, "she destroyed the Conservative Party." A book that thoroughly examined this proposition and concluded in the affirmative would deserve the title Maggie: Her Fatal Legacy. This is not that book.

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