Is the handbag losing its impact?

Baroness Thatcher's attack may harm John Major less than the Nolan report, says Donald Macintyre
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Not long after the leadership election in November 1990, Kenneth Clarke confided in an acquaintance that Conservatives had made a mistake if they thought they had elected Margaret Thatcher's natural heir, adding with some relish: "John was certainly the most left-wing of the three candidates."

Even allowing for Clarke's sense of humour, the remark turns out to have gone to the heart of Mr Major's problems with Thatcherites - and possibly with the Baroness herself; faced with, as they saw it, the horrific prospect of a party led by Michael Heseltine, the assassin in chief, they allowed themselves to be persuaded, not least by the departed prime minister, that Mr Major was the only Thatcherite on the ballot paper.

The discovery that they may not have been quite correct has always tended to make the disloyalty of the hard right of the parliamentary party even more sulphurous than it might otherwise have been. There are still those who - forgetting the poll tax, Margaret Thatcher's deep personal unpopularity at the time and John Major's subsequent pundit-confounding election victory - believe the Tory party was wrong to get rid of her. And for those, the crucial last chapter in the forthcoming second volume of her memoirs - and particularly her remarks on Europe - will no doubt serve as a reminder of just how wrong.

There is, of course, an element of media circularity about all this: publisher hypes book; book makes headlines; MPs decide it is important. Nevertheless, publication does not come at a good time for either the Tory party or Mr Major.

To take one topical contrast between the two prime ministers unconnected with the content of Lady Thatcher's book: she comes back into the news just as the full, self-serving hostility on the Tory backbenches to the Nolan recommendations on cleaning up MPs' outside commercial interests moves towards its peak. In the eyes some of those MPs, Mr Major takes the blame because, for what in many other quarters are seen as admirable reasons, he set up the Nolan committee in the first place. Famously, Margaret Thatcher having set up a committee on the index-linking of public service pensions in 1980 which unfortunately came up with an answer she did not want, never set up any outside inquiry of any sort again. So, the argument goes, Nolan, not to mention Lord Justice Scott's inquiry, wouldn't have happened under Mrs Thatcher. And so on.

But, naturally, it is on Europe that she gives most heart to those in the party most at odds with the strategy of a majority of Mr Major's cabinet. By calling not only for a promise for Britain not to join the single currency but also for the restoration of British parliamentary supremacy over EU law, coupled with disruptive use of Britain's veto if it is refused, she is mapping out a new course for those prepared to contemplate withdrawal from Europe as a last resort. And she does so amid growing signs that the strategy hankered after by some Eurosceptic ministers - that of "repatriation" of some EU powers - is looking more and more like a no-hoper. Finally, and predictably, she retrospectively confers her authority on the Maastricht rebels by describing it as a "treaty too far". Never mind that she herself established the principle of qualified majority voting in the Single European Act.

Neverthless, there is a danger of exaggerating - and overreacting to - the potential damage to Mr Major's leadership of all this. Amazing though it must seem to those outside Westminster, the Nolan findings on Commons regulation are currently doing more to reinforce the threat of a leadership contest this November than anything Lady Thatcher has to say. The argument of at least one Major loyalist in the Government yesterday that it may actually be "helpful" by evoking sympathy for him may be a shade optimistic. But the remarkable background to the Sunday Times pre-publication weekend story - that Lady Thatcher agreed to its being written only after the book had been stolen from the printers and on condition that it made clear that she did not want to see a change of Conservative leadership - strongly suggests that she is not plotting his removal.

The chapter was in fact written three months ago - and there was no good time for its publication. If she had waited until the party conference, it would have seemed all the more undermining. There is an inherent plausibility in her protest yesterday that her remark that "it is for others to take the action required" had been wrenched entirely out of context. And the fact is that, much as Lady Thatcher looks forward to the day that Michael Portillo may become leader, she knows Mr Heseltine would be the almost certain victor if Mr Major went. And by all accounts her face still clouds with undiluted horror at the prospect.

Among cooler heads within the Conservative Party - among Thatcherites as well as loyalists - there was quite a lively recognition yesterday that this may not be quite the political earthquake it seemed at the weekend; much of the charisma is undimmed but the impact of each sally into print is bound to diminish a little as the memory of her premiership becomes more distant.

It is a little disingenuous to claim that she was merely trying to set out an "agenda" for the Major administration; but she was always likely to be outspoken in her last chapter, as part of an effort to establish her place in history and in the process, perhaps, provide something of a gloss on her own role in European integration.

Mr Heseltine was effortlessly lethal in his rebuke of her in a radio interview yesterday (though one MP who still carries a torch for her was mischievously quick to draw the inference that by criticising in his radio interview the level of sterling at which Margaret Thatcher took Britain into the ERM, Michael Heseltine was by implication criticising her chancellor at the time: John Major). But Mr Heseltine has a special licence since he was not in her cabinet for the last four years of its life - as does Mr Portillo, who equally robustly defended her yesterday, for the contrasting reason that he did not even take part in the 1990 leadership campaign, let alone play any part in her downfall. But the best bet is that the rest of the Cabinet will suffer in silence and longingly count the days to the summer recess.