Going on, and on, and on

as it seemed to me As the politics voice of the BBC, John Cole watched the Thatcher years from close up. Here are her final days
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
The 10th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's arrival in Downing Street was due in May 1989, and she was suffering from the erosion of time. Despite her sensible attempts to give this date as little attention as possible, inevitably it cast a long shadow. Talk about when she would retire, and who might succeed her, began almost as soon as the 1987 election was over. The Prime Minister had given me her own forthright views on retirement in an interview on 11 May 1987, the day she announced the general election. She intended "to go on and on and on".

She later regretted using this phrase. She told Kenneth Baker, her party chairman during the leadership crisis, that it led to her being called arrogant. She clearly did not sense this danger at the time, for in the spring of 1988 she developed the theme, telling Brian Walden she intended to continue until a new generation of potential leaders emerged. This caused anguish among the more immediate hopefuls.

Sir Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson had been in their posts at the Foreign Office and the Treasury throughout the 1983 parliament, and they were still there. Howe was enjoying his travels and negotiations, and Lawson delighted Tory MPs in 1988 with a major tax-cutting budget. Yet it was disputes with these two senior ministers that were to destroy Margaret Thatcher's political career, as well as theirs. Geoffrey Howe later accused her of rupturing this once solid troika at the head of her government by testing the relationship to destruction "in pursuit of an ideological obsession".

Her main preoccupation had always been to stop her government being blown off its ideological course. She believed carelessness about ideology had been Ted Heath's fundamental error. Yet as a Prime Minister who wanted to win elections, she combined ambition to stick to her political theories with caution about losing Conservative votes. In that third term, her instincts seemed to desert her.

Nigel Lawson was the one figure in her government who was prepared consistently to take her on. By the late Eighties, Lawson was in conflict with her over the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), indeed over the whole ideology of fixed or floating exchange rates. Critics called her behaviour in those years demagogic, but most members of the Cabinet felt they must just let it wash over them. One minister said to me, in admiration rather than censure, that "only the bastards, Heseltine and Lawson", stood up to Margaret Thatcher.

Lawson certainly did. With drawn breath, other ministers would tell me stories of the encounters between these two supremely self-possessed human beings. I am still uncertain whether to believe as literal truth one that reached me indirectly: of how, towards the end of Keith Joseph's period in government, she once constantly interrupted her ageing mentor, to everyone's embarrassment, until Lawson could bear it no longer, and demanded that she be quiet, which she did, for several minutes.

With the economy in the doldrums, the Conservative Party in growing electoral panic over poll tax and the cost of mortgages, and the row involving the Prime Minister, Lawson and Howe rumbling on above and beneath the surface, a gradual erosion of Margaret Thatcher's standing had begun.

She remained powerful within her government, but she was becoming isolated and embattled. Many ministers thought her more of an enigma. As the terminal crisis of her leadership was building to its climax the following year, however, John Major urged me to note one advantage she still had: that her Cabinet colleagues liked her, because although she could be infuriating, she was also personally considerate. By that stage, it was clear that he was as near to being her chosen heir as anyone had ever been.

Others tended to emphasise her infuriating traits. Sir Patrick Mayhew, a Tory from an older school, found her behaviour with colleagues astonishing. He once observed that she saw herself as an Ellen Terry, one moment a defiant Boadicea, the next holding her head in her hands and saying they had all betrayed her. Meanwhile, ministers sat "like a row of stoats", reminding themselves that she was a woman, and must be treated courteously, and differently from a male Prime Minister.

Mayhew was torn between anxiety and admiration. As a traditional Conservative, rather than an ideologue, he had his doubts about whether the public still retained an appetite for perpetual revolution. He grumbled that some people were always wanting to dig up the roots, when what was needed was a little pruning. On the other hand, he gave credit to Margaret Thatcher for having made beneficial changes in Britain, for having turned the country round, whereas previous Conservative governments, notably Macmillan's, had merely presided over decline.What lost the Prime Minister the sympathy of some colleagues was the brusqueness she showed towards them in the presence of others. Even an admirer told me that a minister bringing in a proposal often had to endure unfair argument. She tended to say: "Who on earth produced this load of rubbish?" A feeling of isolation afflicted her, just when, with the Iron Curtain crumbling, she sensed a new destiny ahead. Now that Ronald Reagan had retired, she told confidants, the ideological drive in Washington had weakened. If she allowed Britain also to run out of ideological steam, the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe would look unavailingly to the West for a guide.

Those closest to the Prime Minister's moods detected that she felt increasingly unhappy both abroad and at home. As reshuffle time came round, Cecil Parkinson observed that while in previous years ministers had been sitting on the edges of their seats in case they should be dropped, now she herself, after the resignations of Lawson and others, was waiting anxiously to see if anyone else would want to go, when she needed them to stay.

But after the July reshuffle, there was no sign that she intended to reduce her isolation by giving Geoffrey Howe the kind of role as Deputy Prime Minister that Willie Whitelaw had occupied. But the Thatcher/Howe relationship had deteriorated too far for her to regard him as she had Willie Whitelaw. When he began to speak in Cabinet or committee, although she would allow him to continue, she sometimes closed up her file, and did not take much notice of what he was saying. A close Thatcher-watcher asked whether I had noticed how she seemed to pass ministers as on a moving pavement or escalator. Men such as Francis Pym, John Biffen, Nigel Lawson, John Moore and Geoffrey Howe appeared for a time to be close to her, and then events moved them away.

It was at about the same time that colleagues began to notice how close she was now coming to John Major. Only a couple of years previously, he was one of the junior members of her Cabinet. Suddenly, he was Foreign Secretary, then Chancellor, and beginning to be regarded as heir-apparent.

Michael Heseltine and his wife, Anne, both suspected that Denis Thatcher would have an important influence on the Prime Minister's decision about retirement. Both had considerable respect for the way in which he played his difficult role as his wife's political consort.

The respect they felt for him may have arisen originally from a small incident at a Downing Street reception. Anyone who has attended these knew that Margaret Thatcher liked to combine the roles of Prime Minister and careful, rather fussy, housewife. On one occasion, when Anne Heseltine was a guest, her hostess assumed the duties of waitress at the buffet, and loaded her plate with more food than the slim Mrs Heseltine could comfortably face. As his wife moved on, Denis Thatcher took in the situation at a glance, murmured, "You don't want all that lot," and taking the plate away, left her to choose her own food.

Denis Thatcher's admiration of his wife was genuine and manifest. She was the kind of leader Conservatives like him had been waiting for all their lives. He particularly admired what he saw as her great courage in making her deeply sceptical Bruges speech, which colleagues had advised her against. He even argued that it would "change the course of history". A minister once surmised that what made Margaret Thatcher so immune to doubt about her opinions was the fact that at the end of a day she and Denis would retire to the flat above Downing Street and, behaving like grassroots Conservatives of the right, wonder why on earth the Government was behaving so foolishly.

Denis Thatcher's relations with journalists were usually guarded. At a party conference, when I arrived late at a party, he inquired what had delayed me. I said I had been appearing on the Nine O'Clock News.

He asked, rather pointedly: "And what have you been saying about us tonight?"

I outlined the bland report I had done on some uncontroversial subject.

Absent-mindedly, he said: "Of course, everybody at the BBC's a Trotskyist."

Startled, I answered: "I beg your pardon?"

He was equally surprised that I should be surprised: "Oh, nothing personal, old boy!"

I assume he thought Trotskyism was one of those unpleasant personal diseases that can happen to any of us.

When Geoffrey Howe was removed from the Foreign Office in July 1989, his first appearance as Leader of the House had produced an amazingly warm ovation from the Conservative benches. Now the sudden resignation of such a popular figure revived dormant doubts about Margaret Thatcher's style of leadership. She consistently underestimated his standing in her party. Just before he resigned, she treated him with great brusqueness at successive Cabinet meetings, savaging his plans for the legislative programme. His ministerial friends were scorching in their criticism of her behaviour. For the first time, many Tories began to say she could not win the general election. Margaret Thatcher was suddenly in a crisis of confidence.

The atmosphere remained feverish when MPs returned from their constituencies. In the Queen's Speech debate, she made a fatal mistake in her reference to Sir Geoffrey Howe's resignation by implying that his departure had come more for personal than political reasons. The party chairman, Kenneth Baker, also suggested that the resignation was about political style, not policy. When the Prime Minister claimed that his resignation letter showed no significant difference between his views of Europe and her own, Howe was as angry as a normally placid man can be. In his resignation speech the following week, he would taunt them with the thought that he must be "the first minister in history [to resign] because he was in full agreement with government policy".

On Tuesday 13 November 1990, Geoffrey Howe launched his thunderbolt. He raised the very same issue that had caused not only Nigel Lawson but also Michael Heseltine, her likely challenger, to leave the Cabinet earlier: her domineering style of conducting government business. Her recent deputy wanted to know how could they go on pretending that the Government had a common policy on Europe, "when every step forward risks being subverted by some casual comment or impulsive answer". And he ended with a transparent invitation for a challenge to her. It was to come, predictably, not from within her Cabinet, but from Michael Heseltine.

The resignation speech produced immediate turmoil in the Members' Lobby. Margaret Thatcher's Tory critics gleefully declared that she was "already dead in the water", or that "the game is up for her". Cabinet ministers began to say privately that if Michael Heseltine challenged her, she could lose. Once the senior figures came to suspect this, they inevitably began to make their own contingency plans, however discreetly.

On the evening of Margaret Thatcher's downfall, the BBC's presenters invited me to assess her place in history, live on the air. This seemed premature - by about fifty years, perhaps? The furthest I would go was to say that, leaving out the Churchill wartime coalition, hers was one of the three landmark administrations of the 20th century: the Liberal government of Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith and Lloyd George, which began in 1906, Attlee's Labour government after the Second World War, and hers. I added that because she was the longest-serving Prime Minister of the century, she had her place in history. What precisely that place was would remain controversial, because her policies had so bitterly divided the nation.

Not exactly a paean of praise, but it was my best judgement at the time, and since.

An edited extract from `As It Seemed To Me', by John Cole, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, price £20.

John Cole in the Independent

Tomorrow in the `Independent on Sunday': Thatcher's fights with Lawson. In Monday's `Independent': the dinner party at which Denis stepped in to protect Major.

Comments