Self-destruction: she remembers it well

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The Independent Online
THERE is a wonderful example of disingenuousness in yesterday's Sunday Times extract from Baroness Thatcher's memoirs when she recalls how, towards the end, she was facing pressure from John Major, her Chancellor, who was for entry into the European exchange rate mechanism. 'We' (the famous royal pronoun, though largely expunged, is not wholly absent) felt it necessary to bring 'others who were more at ease with large ideas and strategies into the discussion' - such as Nicholas Ridley.

The late Lord Ridley was probably cleverer than Mr Major; he was certainly an intellectual, and an ideologue, where Mr Major is not. Lady Thatcher says for the first time here that she would 'ideally' have preferred him over Mr Major as Chancellor but for his 'scorn for presentational niceties'. However, the reason she brought him into talks on economic policy in the spring of 1990 was simple: he alone of her senior colleagues in the Cabinet was against the ERM, and she needed his support.

This helps to put into perspective some of the criticisms she makes of her successor. The Daily Mirror did Mr Major a big service by its scoop last week. First, it pricked a boil that otherwise would have been festering as he made his closing speech in Blackpool, unaware of the scale of the menace that lay ahead. But second, it now looks as if the criticisms, though still damaging, are rather less so than first appeared when they were relayed through the distorting prism of last week's accounts.

Certainly they are a slight affair compared with her account of the battles over ERM with Lords Lawson and Howe. This is of less immediate interest than what she has to say about the present Prime Minister, but in the eye of history it matters more: first because this is a primary account of the mutual self-destruction of the three biggest figures in her government between 1986 and 1990; and second because it is her defence against the charge that she herself, rather than her three chancellors, was to blame for the unravelling of the so-called economic miracle of the Thatcher years.

A primary account, but highly partisan, as one or two fairly random examples suggest. She says now that in 1988 interest rates should have been higher because the economy was growing too fast. This conflicts with the Lawson recollection that she normally wanted rates lower than he did. She also makes the remarkable claim - described as a 'cock-and- bull story' by Lord Lawson yesterday - that she did not know that he was shadowing the deutschmark, in the interests of exchange rate stability, from March 1987 until it was put to her by the Financial Times eight months later.

Many economists would argue that she is right to pick on the DM3 ceiling as one of Lord Lawson's most vulnerable points, that it was a policy that had the disadvantages of ERM membership without the advantages. But it is scarcely credible that she had no inkling of it. As Lord Lawson points out in his memoirs, this 'extraordinary suggestion' was 'put about by her acolytes' after the policy ended, but she herself made no mention of it in an interview in June 1991, when she simply said it was a 'great mistake' to allow him to carry out the policy.

It looks as though the 'acolytes' - Robin Harris, the monkish former deputy head of her policy unit, was one of the principal ghostwriters - are back in charge of the official version.

There is an interesting contrast in her treatment of Lord Lawson's 'folly' and Lord Howe's 'bile and malice'. To use a heavily gender- laden analogy, what radiates through this extract is a political marriage with Lord Howe which had gone so sour that they could not bear to meet over the breakfast table. In Lord Lawson's case, it was a political love affair in which passion still flared even up to the last tragic moment of parting.

Elsewhere, however, the extract is disappointingly short on light and shade, apart from a vivid account of the ghastliness of the Brighton bombing. And there are, so far, only nuggets of revelation: that Lord Carrington hinted to her over dinner in April 1990 that she should resign; that her first choice of Education Secretary after the Howe resignation in November 1990 was Lord Tebbit rather than Kenneth Clarke; that she had been willing to raise income tax by 1p in the 1981 Budget; that by the autumn of 1990 her intention was to stay for two years after her fourth election and then go. On a personal note, she said for the first time in an interview with me in the midst of the events described in this extract, just after the Lawson resignation in October 1989, that she would not fight a fifth election. Later, when this threatened to make her a lame duck prime minister, it was suggested that she had said this at a low point; she had not really meant it. It now turns out, like all those reports about the tensions between her and her ministers that were denied at the time, to have been true.

Lord Lawson, too, has axes to grind, but he was probably right to repeat on BBC radio yesterday that she has still not come to terms with the trauma of being forced from office. He was certainly right to point out that her account cannot be fully judged until we have the whole book. But you can imagine that she still lies awake at night reliving the battles of the past. There is a painful subtext here: I should have sacked Geoffrey Howe rather than just move him from the Foreign Office; I should have stopped Nigel Lawson shadowing the deutschmark; perhaps I should have made Nicholas Ridley Chancellor instead of John Major. These do not look like the memoirs of a former prime minister at ease with herself.

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