Douglas Hurd on Thatcher: Working alongside a political titan

Thatcher did nothing to discourage the myth that she was constantly interfering

In or around the year 1978, I visited the biggest single employer in my constituency – it manufactured car parts on the hill above Witney in Oxfordshire.

I was new to the job and asked the management naively how they were getting on with their business plan. They looked at me with pity. “We have no business plan,” they replied. “We do our best to find out the mood of the shop stewards at Cowley and then calculate as best we can how many cars we think they will allow to be produced next week and next month.”

That was the Britain which Margaret Thatcher took over in 1979. Ted Heath had tried to bring common sense into industrial relations through one massive measure, the Industrial Relations Act. That had failed and Mrs Thatcher learned from the failure in making her own plans. The necessary legislation was brought forward piece by piece, Secretary of State by Secretary of State. When the challenge finally came from the coal miners, Mrs Thatcher was ready. She could not afford to fail against Arthur Scargill. This, rather than the Falklands War, was the crucial moment of her premiership. Her temperament ruled out talk of compromise or conciliation. She took the risk, and won.

I was never an intimate of Mrs Thatcher. I did not gain or seek admission to that coterie which, under the inspiration of Keith Joseph, had brought a sufficient majority of Conservatives to turn away from the One-Nation Conservatism of Ted Heath and towards a monetarist explanation of inflation. Mrs Thatcher knew that Heath, however bad-tempered, was not planning a counter-revolution; he was too proud to plot. This meant that she had a reasonable prospect of attracting to herself the loyalty of his supporters, since he was no longer in the field. She expected and rewarded that loyalty.

Some of us tried to introduce some variation into the crashing certainties of Thatcherism. In 1988, for example, the Home Office celebrated the anniversary of Robert Peel’s birth. I made a couple of speeches praising the concept of “the active citizen”. These went down quite well and Margaret congratulated me on their success, but she was intellectually honest and could never bring herself to utter any words which might imply that, after all, the lady was for turning. We were allowed to introduce some grace notes into the composition, so long as we were ready, at the end, to join in the triumphant chorus. Mine was a valid interpretation of the Conservative creed, but it was not her version. My words would have stuck in her throat. Since most of us believed that the Prime Minister was honourably devoted to the public good, we were broadly content with this arrangement.

Mrs Thatcher did nothing to discourage the popular myth that she, with her handbag, was constantly interfering in the detail of how her ministers did their jobs. She relished the idea that she was everywhere and knew everything. For example, I had no reason to complain of interference in Home Office matters. Apart from broadcasting, where she held strong but internally inconsistent views, she seemed to realise that being Home Secretary was a difficult job which she should not complicate by meddling. I knew that she held strong views in favour of capital punishment but never once in five years did she suggest that we should reintroduce it. There were occasional moments of awkwardness each year at the Party Conference, but that was a small price to pay for her reticence on the subject when it mattered. For the rest, she disliked being taken by surprise – for example, by a prison riot or a police scandal. On such occasions, I needed her support in Cabinet, and, once she had been warned, almost always got it.

In his famous valedictory dispatch from Paris in March 1979, the then British Ambassador to France Sir Nicholas Henderson put the case for a dramatic effort to rebuild public morale in Britain as President de Gaulle had managed to do in France. Within months, Mrs Thatcher was in power and his wish was granted. She believed, like Disraeli, that national prestige was an asset, the store of which we should always be trying to increase. She was tireless in this effort, though sometimes misguided. It was futile to try to hold up German reunification, on which the United States as well as German governments were insistent. President Mitterrand and Mr Gorbachev were playing their own quite different hands with no particular regard for us.

The Falkland Islands were a different matter. Mrs Thatcher’s determined and straightforward stand baffled but impressed our more sophisticated allies, who were constantly looking for some hidden motive which did not exist. I remember a visit by President Mitterrand soon after the victory. The French, briefed no doubt by the Elysée, had warned us that the President would press for lenient treatment of the defeated Argentines. Instead, at the outset he had said: “You have shown again what we French have known for centuries – one must not play games with the English.” The Prime Minister glowed at that, and the rest of the meeting went well.

On Europe, her compromising tactics produced a steadily diminishing return. She made substantial gains at the outset, particularly over the British rebate; but her refusal to give ground even on small matters began to irritate her partners. They had no compunction in ambushing her, for example under the Italian presidency at the last summit which she attended in 1990.

The end came sooner than I expected. A combination of anxiety over her European tactics and dismay over the poll tax meant that she failed to establish a solid lead over Michael Heseltine that November. Although the European partners carried some scars from their encounters with her, they were baffled and sad at the thought that a trap door might suddenly open and remove her from the European scene.

President Mitt-errand held a banquet in honour of the Security Treaty which she had joined in signing that day. Among the glitter of glass and silver at Versailles that night, some of them cross-examined me as to how a Prime Minister with a strong majority in the House of Commons was in danger. It seemed to them (and to me) an unseemly way of changing a government. Maddening though Margaret could be, she was a familiar part of the European scene and they found it strange and uncomfortable that she was under threat.

I did not join with those members of the Cabinet who the next day, in their separate meetings with her, advised her to stand down. I had taken too seriously the ovation which she had received at the recent party conference. I always thoroughly disliked the artificial enthusiasm which the leader’s conference speech habitually generated, but in 1990 I thought it solid enough to see her through. I underestimated the strength of the current already running against her. But she carried herself bravely and I was proud of her that evening at Versailles.

Baron Hurd of Westwell served in Margaret Thatcher’s governments as Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary