Alan Watkins: Heath bullied. Thatcher too. But not this PM

Some incumbents of No 10 really have tormented colleagues. This one is just bad-tempered – and bad at his job

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The great editor of the Sunday Express, Sir John Junor, another Scotsman, was undoubtedly a bully. Once, at half-past five on a Friday afternoon, he was discussing Sunday's possible leading articles with me. He suddenly buzzed someone on the "intercom", then a mark of power and prestige. It was clear that he was speaking to the foreign editor. The conversation was audible in his office.

"Have you read Sam White's column in the Standard?" Junor asked.

The late Sam White in Paris was much admired in the Fleet Street of his day.

"I haven't read it yet, John, I'm afraid."

"What time is it?"

"I don't follow you, John."

"I asked you what time it was."

"Half-past five, John."

"Your watch agrees with mine, I see. And what position do you hold on this paper?"

"I'm not quite with you, John, I'm sorry."

"I asked you what position you held on the Sunday Express."

"I'm foreign editor."

"The foreign editor on the Sunday Express, at half-past five on a Friday afternoon, has not yet read Sam White. May I suggest you read the column to which I refer, which may contain ideas that may interest you or your gifted correspondent in Paris. And, when you have read it, would you be so kind as to give me a buzz."

I was clearly intended to overhear this exchange and to be suitably awed by this exhibition of editorial brutality.

One of Junor's frequent lunching companions at this time was Harold Wilson, then leader of the opposition, soon to be prime minister. Wilson did not try to bully anyone. Instead he was the victim of bullying by Lady Falkender, formerly Mrs Marcia Williams.

The whole grisly tale is told in several books separately by Lord Donoughue and Mr Joe Haines. Poor Harold endured a comprehensive fusillade of saucepans and frying pans from the No 10 kitchen at the hands of Marcia. Maybe Lady Falkender has still to conduct her defence. We can only wait.

What is clear is that Wilson was not a bully. He went in, rather, for schemes, devices, wheezes to disconcert his opponents, or, sometimes, to embarrass his supporters in his own party if he thought they were getting above themselves.

Mr Gordon Brown is prone to try out ploys, such as his fiddling with inheritance tax in 2007. Alas, Mr Brown's dodges tend to produce the opposite effect. In three years, he has established himself as the Tommy Cooper of No 10. Cooper, likewise, seems to have been a somewhat bad-tempered character in his private life.

Wilson's stratagems, however, usually came off. The furthest he went was to tease his ministers. He once had a minister of agriculture called Fred Peart: affable, handsome, none too bright in the head. He was famous for supervising an earlier outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which was not his fault.

The then Labour cabinet was much exercised by something called the green pound. This was not a fashionably ecological term – that came later – but to do with the Common Agricultural Policy. What exactly was this green pound? Wilson enquired of Peart at the Cabinet. Several of his colleagues would very much like to know. Peart was flustered. He replied that it was a sort of equalisation device. Just so, Wilson persisted, but how did it work exactly? What were the figures? Peart did not know, and he retired hurt, but not injured or damaged permanently. It was regarded as a rather good joke on Wilson's part. "Tell us all about the green pound, Fred."

Edward Heath has always struck me as a bit of a bully, though I did not experience any of it myself. Heath was simply a very rude man. Friends of mine, such as Iain Macleod (who died in 1970), would say: "You mustn't mind old Ted. He's just shy."

Margaret Thatcher, when she was first a minister and Heath was prime minister, was not putting up with any of this nonsense. "First of all," Mrs Thatcher, as she then was, would say, "you're going to invite me to sit down. Then you invite me to have something to drink – tea or coffee, doesn't matter. Then we can discuss the matter in hand."

Obviously, I was not present at this meeting. I have pieced the occasion together from accounts by other persons. But it is evident that Heath's temper did not improve, whether generally, or towards Mrs Thatcher specifically: on the contrary, as subsequent events were to demonstrate.

It was an exhibition of bad manners on Heath's part which was to lead to his downfall and his replacement in the form of Mrs Thatcher. The Tory MP Airey Neave visited Heath to tell him that he had suffered heart trouble. "Well, that's your political career finished, then," Heath said to Neave, who resolved to work to bring down Heath – and to replace him with Mrs Thatcher, which duly came to pass.

James Callaghan came after Heath but before Mrs Thatcher. Callaghan gave an impression of tremendous affability and goodwill. The newspapers – and more particularly the cartoonists – accepted this image as correct (this usage of "image" derives from 1908). In fact he was tetchy and bad-tempered when things were not going well, as usually they were not, in his last phase.

Mrs Thatcher was a tremendous bully. Otherwise, her supporters say – she used to say it of herself – she would not have managed to get anything done at all. One of her ministers, the late Ian Gilmour, tells part of the story in his small classic Dancing with Dogma. He and his colleague Lord Carrington were berated for having been "soft" with Brussels, when they thought they had done rather well.

There were other examples. The last of these helped to bring her down.

At the cabinet before the new session of Parliament, Sir Geoffrey Howe, then leader of the House, went through the forthcoming business. Why, Mrs Thatcher wanted to know, was such-and-such not being done? What had become of the such-and-such Bill? According to one of the participants, she used him as a punchbag.

Their colleagues thought she was behaving not only brutally but unfairly. Not only did Sir Geoffrey make his speech some days later, calling on Mrs Thatcher to go. Several days after that, her colleagues refused to support her, and she took her leave of Downing Street in tears. Such are the penalties of bullying.

Mr David Cameron has not had much chance to show what he can do. Mr Michael Howard demonstrated early promise by ruthlessly sacking a Tory MP shortly before the 2005 election for simply questioning party policy. But now he is in no position to sack anybody.

Mr Cameron has applied old Soviet tactics to ensure compliance with the Central Committee's wishes: such as Lord Mandelson and Mr Alastair Campbell used to do in the days of New Labour. Mr Brown was himself part of this dispensation. But he is not a bully: more a bad-tempered incompetent.

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