Margaret Thatcher is at the height of her power, yet knows she could be overthrown at any time. This theme of extreme precariousness runs through the new volume of Charles Moore’s great biography of her.
In the five years covered by the book, she leads the Conservative Party to two huge election victories, in 1983 and 1987, but knows she cannot rely on her own colleagues. As Moore says in this interview: “She understood very well after her ’83 victory that they wanted to get rid of her.”
The IRA also wanted to get rid of her, and at the party conference in 1984, nearly succeeded. In Moore’s words: “The Brighton bomb is a very big thing. First of all it isolated her physically, because she couldn’t move around the country very easily.
“And secondly, this feeling of precariousness again. She nearly was killed and it gave her a sense that time was precious, and probably increased her sense of mission.”
Thatcher began to fall out with the very colleagues who in many ways agreed most strongly with what she was trying to do: Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson, Norman Tebbit. “There was a definite feeling that she might not make it till the next election,” and by the time it arrived, in 1987, “she was going bonkers”.
ConHome: “The precariousness, and the behind-the-scenes explosions, are amazing. Do you think she was starting to be corrupted by power?”
Moore: “I think the rather irritating answer to that is ‘Yes and no’. ‘Yes’ because she increasingly resented anyone – any colleague – on any position of equality.
“One thing that comes out of the book is the scratchier relationships with the key people – Howe obviously, but even Lawson and Tebbit. Still quite good with Lawson at this point, but surprisingly bad with Tebbit.
“And this is to do with her dominance, I think, and her longevity in office, and her extremely alert sense of danger to her political position, but also to her view, which is very understandable but also dangerous, that her instincts were right.
“Because the thing is, they so often were. And so often had she done things where people either didn’t help or said she shouldn’t that she sort of came to trust her instincts.
“Broadly, that was a good way to behave, because it gave her originality and energy. But it did of course mean there was a certain arrogance involved.
“But one reason why she was going bonkers in the ’87 election, though it was very peculiar behaviour, was not that she was declining, but that she was still so determined to win.
“So she was unbelievably anxious about elections, because she put everything into them. She never had that thing which a Tory male, particularly perhaps a public school Tory male, would have, the ‘Well it doesn’t matter all that much because I’m going to be all right afterwards, and anyway we’ve got to lose some time’ sort of thing.
“She always had to win. This was partly because of her convictions and partly because of her idea of herself all alone in this man’s world. And she knew that there would be no mercy for her if she didn’t win, whereas someone of the Willie Whitelaw stripe would have and indeed had survived defeat.
“He would still be very useful to people and people liked him and so on. But with her it’s either number one or nothing. She was I think always very conscious of that.
“In this period, she was broadly speaking doing very well. She was successful in the key Cold War foreign policy stuff, the miners’ strike, privatisation, economic recovery, and political dominance.
“And she was even successful in the EU, or so it seemed at the time. The EEC as it then was. First of all she won the Fontainebleau Agreement on the budget in 1984 after four years of wrangling. And secondly the Single European Act which ensued was something she very much wanted – and then contained the seeds of disaster.
“And she won very very powerfully two elections. So this is a fantastic record but it’s not contradictory to say she was also very precarious, and she did make severe mistakes,
“She understood very well after her ’83 victory that they wanted to get rid of her. Not that they were plotting but it was just the passage of time, she’d won two elections and been leader since ’75.
“They were slightly looking for opportunities and they found one in Westland [in 1985-86] – first of all the hope that she would go, where Geoffrey Howe believed he would be able to succeed her, and then after she had survived the hope that they could tie her down.
“There was a definite feeling that she might not make it till the next election. That was very much in her head all the time.
“Then she thought she’d overcome all that, and her visit to Moscow in March ’87 was fantastically successful, and superb propaganda for the election.”
ConHome: “And Kinnock had a humiliation in Washington at the same time.”
Moore: “What I’ve discovered is that it was, as Kinnock suspected, set up by Charles Powell and the Americans.”
ConHome: “Kinnock did also, as you put it, walk naked into the Oval Office.”
Moore: “And then suddenly the election. Because she didn’t really trust the campaign, the actual sudden feeling after all this that she might lose drove her mad, and she behaved very badly, perhaps to some extent understandably, but it was very bad, running this sort of parallel organisation [under David Young: a rival to Central Office, run by Tebbit].”
ConHome: “The book contains an extraordinary scene in which, in the words of witnesses, ‘Her eyes flashed: hatred shot out of them, like a dog about to bite you,’ and she ‘was screaming, foaming at the mouth’.”
Moore described why she had turned to David Young, who as Lord Young was serving as Employment Secretary: “She did need someone who was able but was unquestionably loyal.
“Because all peers are eunuchs politically. So she tended to be happier with them. From her point of view, I think she would have liked a Cabinet of peers.
“It is tremendously important for the leader to have someone – I know it sounds bad – who will flatter them and make them feel things are remediable…if you have someone who comes in with bad news all the time, and there always is bad news, you can always find it, in the end you sort of lose heart. And I think Young did perform a useful role. But nevertheless the election campaign of ’87 was dysfunctional.”
ConHome: “Throughout her career at the top she needed these people who could in fact handle her.”
Moore. “Yes, you see Parkinson had gone [Cecil Parkinson had had to resign during the party conference in 1983], this is the big thing. Parkinson was of all the elected people ever, well him and Ian Gow I suppose, who best understood how to handle this woman, and make things feel better.
“Norman Tebbit was in many ways very, very good at what he did, but not good at that. In some ways Tebbit’s too serious a politician to be good at this type of thing, he’s a real sort of heavyweight politician in his own right, with his own ideas.”
ConHome: “She sowed a lot of confusion among her friends, but even more, for a long time, among her enemies. One couldn’t perhaps say she deliberately confounded the Left, but she did confound them, because they were so eaten up with hatred of her, and thought she was so self-evidently evil, that they didn’t think about why it was she was doing rather well and what they would have to do to beat her.”
Moore: “I think she was utterly brilliant at this, both because of her real integrity and her real calculation.
“Virtually everyone on the Left, particularly on the moderate Left actually, and for these purposes I include the Liberals and the SDP in the phrase ‘the Left’, and even her critics in the Right and Left of the Tory Party, just didn’t understand her.
“And they didn’t try very hard to understand her. So if you look at what they’re all talking about in the Alliance at this period, for example, what they’re all thinking about is the realignment of the Left, when what they ought to be thinking about just as much is how do we get rid of her?
“What is this phenomenon that’s causing her to win? What is her analysis of Britain that means a whole load of people that are not ideologically right-wing nevertheless support an ideological right-winger?
“And I think the only person in the mainstream non-Tory politics who did think about this is David Owen. And the hard Left did think about it. But someone like Roy Jenkins would just look on her with contempt, because she seemed a vulgar fishwife. I think he maybe even used that phrase.
“And all these cultural people, I do think there’s a lot of misogyny in it actually. They’re on arts subsidies, a lot of them, and they aren’t getting enough respect from her. They’re hilarious, those entries, the things they said about her. Some of them are absolutely mad.”
ConHome: “Yes. They liked disliking her, as Ian McEwan put it.”
Moore: “They were made frantic by the idea that a sort of grocer’s daughter… they’re quite snobby. Also they thought something else was going to happen.
“David Hare’s very honest about that. They were looking the wrong way, because they thought Britain was collapsing in the Seventies – so did she – but their analysis was the opposite.
“They thought there’d be a sort of Left-wing revolt, which they hoped for, somebody like Hare, and you know, capitalism would be in a great crisis and so on. So they absolutely didn’t see it coming, what she was up to.
“Culture’s supposed to be good at seeing deeper trends before other people do, and they didn’t.”
ConHome: “Are there echoes of this now with Corbyn and all that? Where you hate the Tories rather than work out why they won an election?”
Moore: “Yes I think so, because you never hear it said on the Labour platform that the Tories won the last election, or analyse why. And the Corbyn Left always say it’s because they haven’t been offered true socialism.”
ConHome: “It’s a very brave letter with which you end this volume, though tactfully put: Charles Powell telling her for heaven’s sake don’t fight another election.”
Moore: “She and Charles Powell are doing everything in foreign policy…
“There’s a terribly funny memo to her which shows what power he had, and how cheeky he felt he could be about Geoffrey Howe [who was Foreign Secretary]. It shows how comically disrespectful he felt he could be about Howe, in a way that would give her pleasure.
“This is shortly after the Reykjavik summit, when she’s terribly worried about Reagan and selling the pass to Gorbachev. This is Powell writing to her: ‘You have a bilateral with the Foreign Secretary. The plump chap with glasses who used to work across the road and whom we haven’t seen for a long while.’
“On the foreign policy side, I think it is worth saying that this was the only time since the 1950s, possibly before, when a British Prime Minister did have a pivotal role in world policy, and exercised it successfully.
“She had already with Reagan ensured the new generation of nuclear missiles in Europe, and had therefore faced down the Soviet Union and had started to win the Cold War.
“In March ‘87 she did this titanic television interview, which had a massive effect on the Russian people, because they’d never seen anything like that. Because for the first time Gorbachev allowed it to go live and no cuts and all of that, and so she just laid into the Soviet system.
“She had enormous psychological impact on the peoples of the Eastern Bloc. One of her things was always to talk about the peoples of these countries and what they wanted, and not just government to government stuff, which was quite a revolutionary thought.”
ConHome: “To understand her you need a kind of negative capability. You need to be able to hold opposites in your mind, which the people who loathed her were quite incapable of doing. The people on her own side weren’t much good at it either.”
Moore: “I think her sex does come into it a lot. Some people in that era just did not like working with a woman or being led by a woman. And she was very confusing, because one part of her skill was to take the rug from under your feet. She’d argue for victory, not by the rules.”