When King Fahd of Saudi Arabia discovered in late November 1990 that his friend Margaret Thatcher had been turfed out of Downing Street after 11 years he thought she must have been the victim of a coup d’état. How else to explain it? She was undefeated in general elections and, more puzzling still, she was about to send her armed forces into battle. The military deployments for the Gulf War, which would soon remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, were well underway. Thatcher was in the political vanguard, pushing the US and its allies to prepare for the use of decisive force. Many Americans were also confounded by her demise. President Bush was in Saudi Arabia rallying the troops when the news broke of Thatcher’s fall. He called her at once to express his deep sympathy and his mild sense of bemusement. ‘It was quite emotional for him,’ his press secretary Marlin Fitzwater recalled. ‘He and she had put this together. And now she was going to be gone.’ Some of Bush’s generals were blunter. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of the US forces, accosted his British counterpart, General de la Billière: ‘Hey Peter, what sort of country have you got there when they sack the prime minister halfway through a war?’
It was not a coup, not even a very British one. But it was, as Charles Moore describes, the result of a very Tory conspiracy. Thatcher fell following the first ballot of a leadership election among Conservative MPs in which she secured more votes than her rival Michael Heseltine but not quite enough to prevent the contest going to a second round. At that point her cabinet collectively turned against her and let her know that she needed to step down for their sake. They couched it as a plea to save the party from Heseltine, whom she loathed. None of her colleagues told her to her face that they wanted her gone. In a series of individual meetings on the evening of 21 November most of them promised to continue to support her. But they also insisted she would lose. It was, as Moore puts it, ‘a conspiracy in the tradition of the Tory establishment – not of a tiny band of committed extremists determined to commit political murder, but of a wider, looser, virtually all-male club whose habits of mind were profoundly different from her own’. They were chafing under the strain of her relentless thirst for combat and her appetite for change. Worse, they suspected that if they stuck with her they might never get the chance to run things their way. There was an election coming within 18 months and if she lost it they might spend the best years of their political lives in opposition. Meanwhile, if Heseltine won, many of them would be out in the cold anyway. ‘The elders of the tribe, and most of its leading younger members too, wanted a quiet life and their own collective advancement. They worked for these things obliquely, discreetly and without any Leninist clarity about the means.’ Thatcher later came to see it as ‘treachery – with a smile on its face’. That is almost certainly not the way they saw it, though many of them felt profoundly guilty about what they were doing. It was, in their own minds, merely how the game sometimes has to be played.
The means they ultimately chose was to rally around John Major as the person best placed to stop Heseltine. Thatcher reluctantly came to accept this and therefore to accept the ostensible reasons they gave for her stepping aside. Very soon she would regret having fallen for it. Yet it had been clear for some time that Major was her preferred successor. He was the only member of her cabinet who had been invited to a private party the year before to celebrate her tenth anniversary in Downing Street. She had over-promoted him to be foreign secretary and then, following the resignation of Nigel Lawson, quickly moved him to be chancellor, where he was more at home. Her hatred of Heseltine, who was the very last person she wanted to succeed her, had three primary causes. She was still hurt by his open treachery during the Westland affair in 1986, when he had flounced out of cabinet, declaring himself no longer able to work with or trust her. So far as Thatcher was concerned, he had been undermining her leadership ever since. She knew him to be an ardent Europhile and was convinced he would willingly commit Britain to the new project of giving Europe a single currency. She also believed he was basically unsound when it came to the primary political battle of her life, which was to defeat socialism. When Simon Jenkins, then the editor of the Times, went to interview Thatcher at Chequers in the run-up to the leadership contest, he saw a copy of Heseltine’s latest book on the coffee table, stuffed with post-it notes. She told him she had been marking up what she called ‘all the socialist references’.
Thatcher could at least rest assured that Major was none of these things: he was not a flouncer; he was not a Euro-federalist; and he was not a closet socialist. But he was still a grave disappointment. Part of the problem was that, having been marked out as the chosen one, it was imperative for him to wriggle out from under her influence, for fear of appearing to be her placeman. Major did not have Heseltine’s flamboyant vanity but he was prickly and thin-skinned. He was acutely sensitive to the charge that he was simply doing what Thatcher wanted. It didn’t help at all when, in her final visit as PM to Conservative Central Office a couple of days before Major replaced her, Thatcher said she would be ‘a very good back-seat driver’. This is one of those political remarks that was soon taken out of context but ended up making more sense in the wrong context than it did in the right one. She had actually been talking about the impending Gulf War and her last telephone conversation with President Bush: she wanted her audience to know that she would be driving him on. As Moore says, if anyone had cause to take offence at these remarks, it was Bush himself, given what it implied about her faith in his resolve. But the BBC reported it as though she had been talking about her successor. Major deeply resented this, because he suspected it revealed her true attitude to him. From the outset of his premiership he did his best to resist her sway. This made her resentful in turn and ever more eager to assert what was left of it. When he wouldn’t listen she found plenty of willing acolytes in the parliamentary party to listen to her grievances. Many of them were still resentful at the way she had been dispatched and at the ingratitude of the dispatchers. In the end, she wasn’t a back-seat driver. She got out of the car and started looking for another ride.
In truth, the conspiracy against her predated Major’s rise. Its origins lay in her troubled relationship with Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe, the two most important members of her government. It turned, as did so much about her fall, on the question of Europe. Both Howe, who was foreign secretary (until Major replaced him), and Lawson, who was chancellor (until Major replaced him a few months later), wanted Britain to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), which fixed the movement of European currencies in bands and pegged them to the Deutschmark. Thatcher was adamantly opposed. So the two men plotted in that oblique Tory way to bounce her into it. They had different reasons for wanting it, which made it an even more precarious operation. Howe was a Europhile and hated the idea that the UK might be stuck on the sidelines of European integration. He had struck up a low-key friendship with Jacques Delors, the president of the European Commission and Thatcher’s bête noire. Lawson was more Eurosceptic but saw the ERM as a useful tool of macroeconomic policy, which would strengthen his hand in the fight against inflation. Having presided over the boom that had helped buy Thatcher her third election victory, he was growing nervous about the criticism he was attracting from monetarists for overheating the economy.
By contrast, Thatcher detested the idea of fixing the exchange rate for two reasons. First, she thought it would make the pound vulnerable to speculators, who would look to test the resolve of the government whenever the currency approached the top or bottom of its band. This turned out to be prescient. Second, she thought it was a step on the road to an all-powerful European Central Bank and ultimately to a single currency that Britain would be expected to join. She had no desire to set foot on that slippery slope. Lawson tried to reassure her that joining the ERM would slow down European integration because it would force the other members of the club to abide by British rules. She didn’t believe him.
Howe and Lawson’s most concerted effort to get their way came before the Madrid Summit in the early summer of 1989, when the two men drafted a joint memo calling on the prime minister to set a date for Britain to join the ERM. Though she was willing to make encouraging noises about the merits of membership in order to hold her government together, Thatcher refused to name the day, or even to indicate that a time would come when she could. Doing so, she felt, would be another open invitation for speculators to target the pound. Lawson and Howe were stymied by her intransigence but realised there was little they could do about it. Having discovered what her most trusted adviser, Charles Powell, called somewhat euphemistically their ‘ploy’, she moved Howe away from the Foreign Office to become leader of the House of Commons, and a few months later Lawson resigned. The ostensible reason was his inability to work with Alan Walters, Thatcher’s personal economic adviser, whom she had refused to sack when Lawson asked her. But really he had reached the limits of his capacity to endure what he saw as her growing intolerance of views she didn’t share. Thatcher had used the extraordinary power possessed by a prime minister with a large majority in the Commons to see off her two most powerful ministers. But though she won the battle, she lost the war. Within a year Major, working in conjunction with the new foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, got her to sign up to ERM membership despite all her misgivings.
How did Major and Hurd succeed where Lawson and Howe had failed? Ever sensitive to the idea that he was Thatcher’s poodle, the new chancellor was determined to prove his independence by achieving what Lawson couldn’t. What clearer way to show he was his own man than to get the PM to do what she had long insisted she never would? Major had better people skills than Lawson and a lighter touch. He didn’t try to bully Thatcher with technical arguments, but worked on her fears about her legacy. Inflation was rising and he warned her that the government was at risk of losing its reputation for sound economic management. With an election looming, it couldn’t afford to give Labour a stick to beat it with. Joining the ERM would spike Labour’s guns. He also knew that she was growing increasingly worried about the poll tax, which was costing individual households far more than anyone had anticipated. Rising inflation went along with rising poll tax bills. The external discipline provided by the ERM, which had long been anathema to her, lost some of its stigma when it could be presented as a way to stabilise a politically precarious situation. In the past Thatcher had always believed that the necessary discipline should come from her. But now, bruised by Lawson’s departure and facing growing public resistance to her flagship domestic policy, she wasn’t quite so sure. Finally, Major realised that the way to Thatcher’s inner counsels was through Charles Powell. So he worked on Powell and persuaded him of the political necessity of a change of heart. Powell moved from being opposed to ERM membership to being reluctantly in favour. His boss soon followed suit.
What complicated the decision was the question of Germany. The biggest change of all since Lawson and Howe’s failed attempt to force her hand had come with the end of the Cold War. In the final months of 1989 the communist regimes of Eastern Europe collapsed in the face of popular protest, a sequence of events symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was, for Thatcher, a moment of apotheosis and the culmination of a decades long struggle against the enemies of human freedom. But she could take little lasting pleasure in it. It immediately raised in her mind another, perhaps even more deep-seated concern: the possible reunification of Germany. Powell, who was with her when she watched the television footage of East Germans streaming to the West, summed up her reaction as follows: ‘This is wonderful, everything we ever dreamed of, and the people are doing it, not the government.’ Her second thought, which came only micro-seconds later, was ‘My goodness! This is dangerous! We’d better be sure this doesn’t get out of hand.’ Another witness claimed that she was appalled by pictures of the members of the Bundestag singing ‘Deutschland über Alles’, which she described as ‘a dagger to my heart’. The next morning she appeared outside Downing Street to celebrate ‘a great day for freedom’, but when asked if she could live with a united Germany she said that was going ‘much too fast. The first thing is to get a proper, genuine democracy, a multi-party democracy, in East Germany. That is what will keep people rebuilding East Germany and staying there.’
She was swimming against the tide of history. The Americans wanted to see a reunified Germany, ideally inside Nato, and so did the Germans themselves. Her deeply sceptical attitude strained her relations with Bush and with Helmut Kohl, a man she had never much liked. Kohl once told Powell to try to persuade her that he wasn’t really a German, but ‘a true European’. It wasn’t a message she was willing to hear. When, in the summer of 1990, West Germany defeated England in the semi-finals of the World Cup, Kohl couldn’t resist telling her that his country had just beaten hers at its national game. She replied that her country had beaten his at its national game twice during the 20th century. She thought a reunified Germany would place undue strain on any international organisations, including Nato, designed to contain it, since it would unbalance them. She also harboured lingering doubts about the German national character, which became the subject of a notorious seminar she held at Chequers with a group of historians to discuss what German reunification might mean for the rest of Europe. A note of the occasion made by Powell, which was subsequently leaked, listed some of the attributes that were considered: ‘Their insensitivity to the feelings of others (most noticeable in their behaviour over the Polish border), their obsession with themselves, a strong inclination to self-pity, and a longing to be liked.’ Other qualities discussed included German ‘angst, aggressiveness, assertiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complex, sentimentality’. Powell later said he regretted writing this down, not because it didn’t reflect the nature of the discussion, but because it was flippant to list these characteristics in alphabetical order.
The prospect of German reunification quickened the pace of European integration, including plans for a single currency. The French in particular saw the need to ensure that a bigger and more powerful Germany was embedded in European institutions so that it would be subject to the influence of others, above all the French themselves. François Mitterrand, ever duplicitous, was happy to whisper poison into Thatcher’s ear about their shared suspicion of the German national character, while at the same time doing everything he could to ensure that the vision of a greater Europe held by Delors, which Thatcher detested, came to pass. Whatever their shared doubts about the Germans, the two leaders fundamentally differed about the best way to deal with them. For Mitterrand a unified Germany was too dangerous unless contained within a united Europe. For Thatcher a united Europe was too dangerous if it contained a unified Germany. She thought the Germans would eventually take over the institutions designed to constrain them. Her fears found colourful expression by proxy in an interview given by Nicholas Ridley, the cabinet minister to whom she remained closest and whose views came closest to her own: ‘When I look at the institutions to which it is proposed that sovereignty is to be handed over, I’m aghast,’ Ridley told the Spectator.
Seventeen unelected reject politicians … with no accountability to anybody, who are not responsible for raising taxes, just spending money, who are pandered to by a supine parliament which also is not responsible for raising taxes, already behaving with an arrogance I find breathtaking – the idea that one says, ‘OK, we’ll give this lot our sovereignty,’ is unacceptable to me … You might as well give it to Adolf Hitler.
There is something incoherent as well as intemperate about this argument (many at the time suspected Ridley had been drunk). It seems odd to suggest that European integration would lead both to more profligacy and to more German control. After all, the reason Thatcher finally signed up to the ERM was because she knew the Germans were not profligate and that a monetary system underpinned by the Deutschmark might discipline the British economy in a way her government was struggling to achieve. It would also allow her to lower interest rates, which was always one of her prime goals (she told Major that lower interest rates were the price she would extract for ERM membership). But Ridley was gesturing towards the fundamental problem as Thatcher saw it. A Europe supplied with the benefits of German economic management would necessarily be a Europe in which the Germans had too much power. If that power was subsumed in Europe-wide institutions then the benefits of German economic management would be squandered and replaced with the spendthrift ways of the French and others. Either too much Germany or not enough Germany: there was no sweet spot. This, Thatcher felt sure, was the reason the euro wouldn’t work. If a single currency was not to mean that Germany dominated the rest of Europe then the rest of Europe would be in a position to get a free ride from Germany. Either way, Britain couldn’t win.
Rather than more integration Thatcher wanted greater expansion, with the newly liberated states of Eastern Europe given the benefits of membership of the single market. She still saw the EEC as primarily a trading organisation, not a political one. But the ambitions of those who wanted to turn it into a fully-fledged political union were not hard to detect. She gave starkest voice to her fears about what was afoot in her report to Parliament on the EEC summit in Rome that took place in late October 1990. She told the House of Commons: ‘The president of the Commission, Mr Delors, said in a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the senate. No. No. No.’ As Moore recounts, these words were expressed firmly, not vehemently, with each ‘no’ spoken more quietly than the last. But the effect was immediate. They did not need to be taken out of context to cause the maximum offence. For Howe it was too much. He resigned two days later, unable to endure, as he put it in his celebrated resignation speech, ‘the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long’. This was an open invitation to Heseltine to launch a leadership challenge. In true Tory style, Howe had not briefed Heseltine about what he was going to say, for fear that others would see a conspiracy at work. But he didn’t need to: Heseltine understood the game and took his cue. The next day, standing on the doorstep of his large Belgravia home, he announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Conservative Party. He pledged, among other things, to unite the cabinet round his positive vision of Britain’s place in Europe and to undertake an ‘immediate and fundamental review’ of the poll tax. Within less than two weeks, Thatcher was gone. The Tory Party conspires slowly but it acts quickly. One of Major’s first decisions as PM was to invite Heseltine to join his government and to task him with coming up with a replacement for the poll tax.
The final part of Moore’s book describes Thatcher’s life after she left office. It is a sad tale, beautifully told. Once it became clear to her that Major intended to sign up to the Maastricht Treaty, which would turn the European Economic Community into the European Union, she turned on him, wholly unpersuaded by the opt-outs he had secured. She demanded a referendum on the issue, even though she had strongly opposed the 1975 referendum on membership of the EEC, believing it to be at odds with the tradition of parliamentary sovereignty. Major had also contemplated holding a referendum on Maastricht, but once she advocated it, he wouldn’t, for the old reason that he couldn’t be seen to do what she wanted. As he later put it, ‘the fact that she had called for the policy killed the policy.’ She opened her house and her heart to the parliamentary rebels who were making Major’s life hell during the process of Maastricht ratification. She set out her alternative vision for Britain’s future, though never going as far in public as she was willing to go in private. In 1992, in a letter to the Eurosceptic MP Teddy Taylor, she wrote:
I would personally think it is terribly important that those who have been very doubtful about the European enterprise should have some kind of alternative strategy clearly set out … I have always felt that the best answer for us was to be a kind of free-trade and non-interventionist ‘Singapore’ off Europe, seeking contact and understanding with the growth areas of the world, but I have a feeling that such a scheme is perhaps too revolutionary even for my fellow Euro-sceptics here in the Commons.
That same year she saw Major pull off an unexpected victory over Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party in the general election that the members of her last cabinet had persuaded themselves she would lose. Six months later, she watched her successor have his own reputation destroyed by the pound’s forced exit from the ERM, hounded out by the speculators. It became clear that Britain had joined at too high a rate in 1990. When German interest rates rose in the aftermath of reunification the consequences were ruinous for Major’s strategy, with the Bank of England unable to defend sterling, despite putting interest rates up by two points in a single day. The German rate rise was a consequence of the decision to exchange the relatively worthless Ostmark for the rock solid Deutschmark at the deeply patriotic rate of 1:1, thereby absorbing the former and temporarily weakening the latter. So Thatcher was right – German reunification did spell big trouble for the UK – but for the wrong reasons. She didn’t foresee the problem with the high rate at entry any more than Major had. But she was convinced she had been vindicated in the reservations she had held all along.
When Major lost heavily to Blair in 1997, Thatcher backed William Hague to succeed him, swinging enough MPs behind her choice to get him comfortably over the line. When Hague lost to Blair just as badly four years later, Thatcher gave her support to Iain Duncan-Smith, helping him to see off Michael Portillo and Kenneth Clarke. When Duncan-Smith proved even less successful than his predecessor, he was replaced by another Thatcherite, Michael Howard, who went down to defeat against Blair in 2005. In truth, it was Blair himself who most appreciated her blessing. When she wrote to him after his first victory to congratulate him on his success he was, in the words of Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff (and Charles’s brother), ‘absolutely thrilled’. He wrote back to say that he would ‘like to meet soon. There is much I would like to talk about, with you.’ When Gordon Brown became prime minister in 2007, he invited Thatcher to Downing Street and greeted her warmly at the front door. By this point her health was poor and some criticised Brown’s gesture as exploitative of a sick old lady, but she greatly appreciated it, cherishing the opportunity to stand and wave outside her old home once again. She had little else to cheer her. Dementia had robbed her of much of her acuity. Her relations with her children, Mark and Carol, were strained. She had little to do. Her husband, Denis, was dead, having succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2003, aged 88. Their last years together were not especially happy. When he took a trip to South Africa for his health, as he had done earlier in their marriage, she became convinced he was leaving her. But when he was finally gone, she was bereft. She died in 2013, having lived long enough to see another Conservative enter Downing Street. That prime minister, David Cameron, wanted to give her a full state funeral, putting her on the same level as Churchill. She vetoed the idea. So she was given a full ceremonial funeral instead, which placed her on a par with the Queen Mother and Princess Diana, though she received greater military honours, as befitted a former head of government who had led her nation in war.
Now, in the aftermath of December’s general election, the story has come full circle. Faced with Boris Johnson’s Brexit-driven leadership of the party, both Major and Heseltine found themselves unable to support the Conservatives, with Heseltine going so far as to suggest that people vote Liberal Democrat instead. Months earlier, Major had been involved in a lawsuit that accused the sitting Conservative prime minister of having abandoned the constitution. All this would have confirmed Thatcher in her belief that the two men were traitors to the cause. Seeing them routed by Johnson’s overwhelming victory, along with all the other faint-hearts, Europhiles, elitists, lawyers and other metropolitan types, would have given her great pleasure. Her vision of Britain as a Singapore off the coast of Europe no longer has to be hidden. Some, indeed, hope it will soon become official government policy. Yet anyone who wants to see the coming Johnson administration as continuity Thatcherism should bear in mind that what is being channelled today is not Thatcher’s own record in office, but her views after she stepped down, which were different and much more uncompromising. Post-prime ministerial Thatcher was not the same person she had been as PM. Take another issue: climate change. As prime minister, proud of being the first science graduate to occupy that role, Thatcher had looked at the evidence and chosen to warn the world about the threat of global warming. She was one of the first major political figures to suggest that the build-up of carbon in the atmosphere might become one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century. She used her power to push for market-friendly policies that might mitigate the risks. But once she lost that power she changed her tune. By the time she published her book Statecraft in 2002, she was arguing that the science had shifted against global-warming theories since her time in office, and claimed that co-ordinated plans to deal with climate change were really ‘a marvellous excuse for worldwide, supranational socialism’. Think about the work that word ‘excuse’ is doing here. As PM she had believed in letting the science speak for itself. Now she thought that what mattered were the motives of the people who were seeking to act on it. She had had enough of experts. It was a very Tory conspiracy theory.
Johnson’s majority of eighty gives him the sort of power that no Conservative prime minister has had since Thatcher won her majority of 102 in 1987. Moore’s book is in some ways a good guide to what to expect. It is noticeable how little the activities of the opposition feature in his account. There are moments when Thatcher is alarmed by what might come up at Prime Minister’s Questions, and very occasionally Kinnock gets the better of her in the Commons. She was certainly always conscious that the next election, however distant, was the real test of what she was doing. Yet her time in office was dominated by high Tory politics, and what mattered most were her relations with her colleagues and her advisers. Understanding the inner workings of the Conservative Party was far more important in this period than anything that was happening on the other side. Moore is a peerless guide to the Thatcher years because he is wholly at home in this world. The three volumes of his biography stand comparison with Robert Caro’s Life of Lyndon Johnson in their ability to show us how power works from the inside. Personal relationships at or near the top matter far more than political posturing. It would probably be wise to remember that in the years ahead.
At the same time, this book reminds us just how much has changed. In many ways Johnson and Thatcher could not be more different. She was a Christian politician whereas he is, as Helen Thompson has pointed out, fundamentally pagan. Thatcher believed she was governing an essentially Christian country, which was doubtful even then and certainly would not be true today. She did things it is impossible to imagine Johnson doing. For instance, she regularly listened to the Today programme on Radio 4, including ‘Thought for the Day’, whose contents she took entirely seriously even as she was profoundly irritated by the leftish bishops who often delivered them. In November 1987 she invited a group of Anglican bishops to Chequers for what she hoped would be ‘a constructive dialogue about the role of the Church in its relation to the state’. This was probably asking too much, given how little of her political outlook the bishops shared. But the occasion did provide one perfect vignette of the Thatcher era:
The bishops included Richard Harries, the new bishop of Oxford, at that time a frequent broadcaster on Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’, to which Mrs Thatcher usually listened. As he recalled, ‘Mrs Thatcher welcomed us very graciously for drinks before lunch. “Ah,” she said, greeting me, “the bishop of Oxford. I listen to you on the radio. Sometimes I agree with you. Sometimes you make me mad. What would you like to drink?”’ A slightly flustered Harries said he would like Perrier water. ‘We don’t serve Perrier water here,’ she replied, disdainful, as ever, of anything French.
There could be something curiously innocent about Thatcher’s attitude to the society in which she found herself, which is not something that could ever be said of Johnson. The reason her government was so slow and inadequate in its response to the Aids epidemic, which had turned into a crisis by the end of her second term, was not simply prejudice. It was also her reluctance to broach subjects she thought the public might be better off not knowing about. In 1986 the Department of Health had prepared advertisements for the Sunday newspapers that identified the sexual practices most likely to spread the disease. ‘Do we have to do the section on Risky Sex?’ Thatcher wrote at the top of a memo on the subject. She thought making this information available would do more harm than good, especially to teenagers. ‘By this she meant,’ Moore writes, ‘that the section would put into the minds of young people sexual practices, notably anal intercourse (which the draft described as “anal [back passage] intercourse”), which might not otherwise, in that pre-internet age, have occurred to them, thus encouraging the very practice it sought to reduce.’ The government’s response was additionally hamstrung by the awkwardness many of her ministers and senior civil servants, all of them men, felt in discussing such matters in front of a woman. She was not a prude – what Moore calls ‘her reverence for clear and accurate facts’ saw to that – but she was made uneasy by the topic of sex and ‘could not take refuge, as did her male colleagues, in smutty jokes and (to her) incomprehensible double entendres to lighten the discussion’. The book includes a photograph of Thatcher’s final cabinet: one woman in a green twinset, flanked by 24 white men, all in late middle age or older, all wearing soberly coloured suits. Where else were they to take refuge if not in smutty jokes? Johnson is an altogether more colourful figure than any of them, and his cabinet will be far more diverse, but we can guess which side of this divide he would have been on.
Even Thatcher’s most hateful policy – section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which barred local authorities from using material in any state school that promoted the acceptability of homosexuality – was not as straightforwardly prejudiced as it may have seemed. It was dressed up at the time as an attempt to defend the integrity of the traditional family unit and the Christian values associated with it. But the matter at hand was not, for Thatcher, primarily about sexuality. Rather, it reflected her nagging obsession with left-wing councils spending public money for ideological ends. It was this line of thought that led her to embrace the poll tax, believing that if people understood it was their money that was being spent they would be much more careful about whom they elected to spend it. She could not have been more wrong. Nonetheless, Moore insists, if section 28 ‘was vindictive in spirit, it was against councils, not against gay people’. In response to a letter she received from a married couple commending her for the stand she was taking, Thatcher replied: ‘People are free to live their own lives in private but should not expect to flaunt their lifestyles on the local authority rates.’ It was the last words in that sentence that carried the most weight in her mind. The seemingly frivolous waste of other people’s money always mattered to her, particularly when it was the money of homeowners. This lay behind her obsession with interest rates, or as she sometimes put it, referring to her own daughter, ‘poor Carol and her mortgage’. Here is another stark contrast with what Johnson will face. Renters, not mortgage payers, are the people from whom he is likely to get the most grief, perhaps even including his own children. Rents are far too high for many young people, particularly in London, but interest rates for homeowners remain at historic lows, where they have been for more than a decade. The current base rate stands at 0.75 per cent. On 17 May 1988, following pressure from the prime minister, Lawson cut interest rates by half a per cent to 7.5 per cent. As chancellor, it was then still in his gift to do so. Remarkably, seen from today’s perspective, that was their lowest level in Thatcher’s entire period in office.
The 2019 election probably has more in common with Major’s victory in 1992 than with Thatcher’s final triumph in 1987. Like Major, Johnson inherited a government that looked like it had lost its way and somehow injected new life into it. Each achieved a fourth successive general election win for their party – the only time this has happened in the modern era – by presenting himself as a breath of fresh air. Johnson’s parliamentary majority is much more comfortable than Major’s but their respective vote shares are pretty similar (41.9 per cent in 1992, 43.6 per cent in 2019). Both men were greatly aided by facing Labour leaders who had come to believe their own publicity and were given a rude awakening by the electorate. In the months after Major’s win, the Tories touched 50 per cent in some opinion polls and he looked well placed to set his own course for years to come. Yet by the end of the year, following the ERM debacle, both his personal ratings and those of his party had collapsed and they never recovered. In some ways Johnson starts in a weaker position, with far lower approval ratings and carrying much more personal baggage. Over the next year he will have to deliver on his flagship policy – a successfully negotiated Brexit deal – and any significant setbacks will be pinned on him alone. The issue of ERM membership helped bring Major to power and then to drive him from it. It’s not hard to imagine Brexit doing the same for Johnson.
My enduring memory of the night of the 1992 election was seeing a succession of Labour figures struggling with the early stages of grief. Some were still in denial. Many were experiencing profound anger and looking for someone to blame. Kinnock appeared distraught. Some of his colleagues were openly speculating about whether a party that had lost four elections in a row could ever win again. Only one person seemed to have the measure of the situation. John Prescott, though clearly pulsing with rage, refused to indulge in either resignation or recrimination. He came on TV in the early hours of the morning to say that he was sure Labour would win next time, so long as the party took on board what had happened and got back to work. Anything else would be self-indulgence. It struck me at the time as the one truly courageous response to what had happened and I remembered it again five years later, when Prescott became the deputy prime minister of a Labour government with the largest parliamentary majority in the party’s history. I didn’t see anyone playing Prescott’s role on election night this time, though I went to bed early and may have missed it. Perhaps the difference is that in 1992 Labour was moving closer to power, gaining votes and seats and putting itself in a position, once the grief had passed, for a final push next time round. In 2019 it was going backwards, losing seats it had held for a century and gaining votes only in places where it doesn’t really need them and among groups – the young, the university-educated – whose support is concentrated in particular areas rather than distributed across the country. The electoral map, with pockets of Labour support in a sea of blue, doesn’t look promising for a final push. Johnson will drive through the constituency boundary changes that neither Cameron nor May managed to pass and that will make the electoral geography tougher still. But five years is a long time and Johnson’s honeymoon may be even shorter than Major’s was. The first-past-the-post system, now entrenched for at least one more parliament, means Labour remains the only possible alternative party of government. But this time simply dusting themselves down and getting on with it may not be enough.