On Monday night, Boris Johnson hailed Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher as “the greatest recent work of biography” and “the greatest work of modern British history”.
Johnson observed that at the heart of the third and final volume, Herself Alone, now published, lies “a single glittering and terrible event, an assassination”, and said of those who carried it out: “They are all honourable men, Brutus, Cassius and the rest.”
In this interview, Moore describes the conduct of John Major during her downfall as “not noble, but understandable”, though had she known Major was playing a double game, and was “shafting” her, she would not have “anointed him her heir”.
And Moore explains why Thatcher regarded women, not as the equals of men, but as their superiors. For women
“suffer from fewer illusions, they’re closer to reality, more conscientious, and more aware of the human factor, and less likely to be patronising, pompous and jargon-ridden.”
Moore has written a history, so declined to speculate about how Thatcher, who died in 2013, would regard the present Prime Minister. But he did remark on one of the reasons for her success:
“People were always telling her she must have a strategy. She said no, I mustn’t, because politics isn’t like that. So what she had is big aims, and big principles, but no strategy.
“And this used to drive people, particularly with a business background, mad. Her phrase for it was, ‘We don’t want to get stuck on graph paper.'”
Johnson is always being told he must have a plan, when what he actually has is a big aim. He can perhaps derive some comfort from his great predecessor’s example.
ConHome: “What influence has Thatcher had on women politicians today?”
Moore: “Well of course a lot of women politicians admire her, or are very interested in her – Liz Truss for example, Priti Patel and Nicola Sturgeon – the last not being a fan in terms of her politics, but a student of how she did it.
“Only a very foolish aspiring politician, particularly a woman politician, would not be interested in her.
“There is a school of thought, I see, from Corbynistas that she is almost literally the devil incarnate – there’s nothing to learn from her except how to exorcise her spirit.
“But otherwise I’ve found that people right across the political spectrum study her, and the particular thing they’re interested in is, from the woman point of view, how do you do it, how do you thrive in what even now is probably a man’s world, though of course she so comprehensively shattered the glass ceiling that it is much less of a man’s world.”
ConHome: “You’ve said in the last few days that she reckoned women are better than men. Did she actually say that?”
Moore: “She didn’t say it in so many words. But she liked Kipling, ‘more deadly than the male’; she said the famous thing about the cocks may crow but the hen lays the eggs, and she said that men just talk and women do.
“And all those things plus lots and lots of other things amount to saying women are better than men as – not needless to say in every respect – but they suffer from fewer illusions, they’re closer to reality, more conscientious, and more aware of the human factor, and less likely to be patronising, pompous and jargon-ridden.”
ConHome: “Do you agree with all that?”
Moore: “Well it’s not really for me to agree or disagree. I think she exhibited the truth of some of those propositions.”
ConHome: “Did John Major help you with this book?”
Moore: “Yes, a lot.”
ConHome: “Because he’s quite astute about the whole thing, when she’s in desperate trouble in November 1990 and he’s having his wisdom teeth out, but his conduct is also a little bit underhand.”
Moore: “You need to read that very closely, and it’s very subtle and clever of him, the way he shafted her.
“And it’s important to be fair to him on this. He did shaft her, he did conspire against her, I think that’s undoubted.
“But it was very difficult for him, because if he felt there was good reason to think that after not doing well enough on the first ballot she ought to go, it was natural for him to have the ambition to succeed her.
“And if his nomination had gone through for her on the second ballot, he would not have been able to compete to succeed her.
“So that’s why he did this very complicated manoeuvre, which I expose, by which he only promised to nominate her on condition that his nomination was not used.
“And she did not know that. And if she had known that, she would not have anointed him her heir.
“So the effect was to deceive her. But I wouldn’t say the motive was ignoble. I’d say it was not noble, but understandable.
“Because she was going anyway. There was a danger of being linked to a corpse. He didn’t bring her down. He was one of many who did not try to prevent her fall.
“He was positioning himself very carefully and very well.”
ConHome: “In one of our previous conversations, you said that among other things she was ‘a great twister and turner’, as well as a conviction politician.
“Would you say that is an indispensable part of politics? You have to adapt to circumstance, and circumstance changes.
“People have this naive idea of politics that as long as you have a plan, and it’s the right plan, and you stick to it, everything will be fine.
“But of course, nothing could be more damaging, once circumstances change.”
Moore: “Exactly. Because if you say you’re going to go along that railway line, and in fact you’ve learned there’s a carriage lying across it, your promise to go down that railway line must be aborted if you wish yourself and everyone else to survive.
“And she knew that. The way she expressed it was always to do with her resistance to the idea of having a strategy. People were always telling her she must have a strategy.
“She said no, I mustn’t, because politics isn’t like that.
“So what she had is big aims, and big principles, but no strategy.
“And this used to drive people, particularly with a business background, mad.
“Her phrase for it was, ‘We don’t want to get stuck on graph paper.'”
ConHome: “Yes. In fact Boris is rather like that, having big aims, but no strategy.”
Moore: “Yes. She was more focussed in her aims I think than Boris, and she had more of them. And she knew much more about the detail than Boris.
“But it was the same essential political understanding of the need for tactical flexibility.
“A famous example is her capitulation to the miners in 1981. She wasn’t ready. Which made it absolutely clear to her that she had to be ready for the miners when they next came round, which was in 1984. And she was ready.”
ConHome: “The Tories are very good at putting on these tremendous leadership contests every 20 or 30 years.”
Moore: “Every 20 or 30 minutes now.”
ConHome: “Did her manners get worse towards the end of her time in office? I remember John Whittingdale saying he’d never seen anyone be as rude to anyone as she was to Geoffrey Howe.”
Moore: “I think they did get a bit worse, but I think it’s partly because the context was different. She’d been the doyenne, the senior leader of the western world, the longest-serving from 1982 onwards, and very dominant at home, with three resounding victories under her belt.
“So there were fewer and fewer people who could answer her back, and she fights fiercely if they do, and that deters them, and they get more resentful.
“Howe and Lawson were the only two remaining senior ones, and they fall out with her.
“So there’s almost nobody who can say, ‘Come on Margaret, stop it.’ Denis can. He couldn’t stop her remaining in office. He tried to get her out in May ’89, but she wouldn’t do it.”