Share this article Share She was always conscious of the tedium factor. New reasons must be found to justify her tenure of office. But it was not looking stale that was her problem. On the contrary, it was the constant upheaval she generated. She was, from the start of her leadership to its tumultuous end, a temperamentally and ideologically disruptive force. The Establishment — including large chunks of the Conservative Party — was ill at ease with her.
End of an era: Geoffrey Howe delivers his Commons onslaught after his increasingly fractious relationship with Mrs Thatcher spectacularly exploded with his resignation The longing of her colleagues and subordinates for a quiet life was always strong.
Hence her eventual supplanting by the weak, unthreatening and consensual John Major. Hence the ensuing lack of purpose, of discipline, of idealism and of probity.
Her downfall could have happened on numerous occasions before, and very nearly did over the Westland crisis in , when Michael Heseltine — who realised he could fulfil his ambition of becoming prime minister only over her dead body — stormed out of the Cabinet over the fate of an ailing helicopter firm.
She came out of the affair looking both weak politically yet overbearing personally, and there was widespread talk of a Cabinet plan to oust her. She recovered from this situation, largely because her ministers rallied round her rather than the pretender to the throne, Heseltine. But by , there were three key new factors. The first was the political disaster of the widely unpopular poll tax, which led to riots in the streets. The second was a downturn in the economy, with rising inflation and high interest rates, over which she had been at loggerheads with her chancellor, Nigel Lawson.
The third new factor was her renewed hostility to Europe, an issue that divided her from crucial senior members of her Cabinet, especially Geoffrey Howe, her foreign secretary, until she demoted him.
Mrs Thatcher's championing of the widely unpopular poll tax led to riots in the streets She was also now faced with increasingly fractious Tory MPs.
All prime ministers tend to get out of touch with their parliamentary supporters, not through arrogance but from pressure of work. A leader who has time to gossip in the House of Commons tea room is not one who is getting on top of his or her brief. There also arises a kind of timidity — the very opposite of hubris.
Leaders feel uneasy with their MPs. What is one to say to backbenchers who criticise matters of which they know little and understand less? Concerned with government not party, and policy not politics, Mrs Thatcher increasingly leaned on her loyal coterie of officials for advice. This stored up trouble. And then, on November 1, , Howe, bitter at having lost the job of Foreign Secretary and fed up by her carping about his work as leader of the House of Commons, resigned from the government.
Enlarge At first, some around Mrs Thatcher welcomed his departure. It was at least a chance for a reshuffle in which she could strengthen her position in the Cabinet, notably by bringing back the towering figure of Norman Tebbit, the only senior Tory politician with the instincts, intellect and guts to fight alongside her in reminding the public and the party what Conservatism really meant.
If he had decided otherwise, she would have had a serious ally in the Cabinet when the final crisis came. She might then have survived. The reshuffle to strengthen her position had in reality left her weaker than ever.
Her position was becoming unstable. She might still be playing Boadicea, the warrior queen, but the Tory establishment was preparing to abandon her.
She was now in sombre mood as she discussed possible challenges to her leadership, which, under party rules, would mean a ballot of Tory MPs. Then a serious misjudgement was made — the origin of much that was to follow. Without consulting anyone else on the wisdom of this move, Mrs Thatcher and Peter Morrison MP, her parliamentary private secretary, decided to throw down the gauntlet and bring matters to a head.
It was a risky thing to do because his pride was as swollen as his ambition. Then a still more fateful step was taken — to ask for the deadline for any possible leadership election to be brought forward in order to cut short the uncertainty damaging the government and the party.
This was pure folly. The timing meant she would be abroad in Paris at a summit meeting with other world leaders at the time of any contest. If she had to fight for her political life, there would be little time to prepare and she would be absent during the actual vote itself.
The House of Commons was geared up to enjoy his humiliation of her, and it was not disappointed. A sharp downturn in the British economy pitched Mrs Thatcher against her chancellor Nigel Lawson, left It was the wrong tone, it smacked of bravado, and it provided Howe with an opportunity for nastiness.
But its legendary qualities have been bestowed in retrospect. It is not, in truth, difficult, if one has a mind to do so, to deliver a wounding speech at the expense of a close colleague whose every quirk and weakness one has known for years. It is just that most people, however annoyed, would not do it. The fact that Howe, a man who usually shrank from confrontation, should launch such an attack made it intensely damaging.
His actions suggested that Margaret Thatcher was both personally odious and politically unworthy. By the time Howe sat down, the tumbrils were on the move. She remained stony-faced throughout, ignoring the theatrical intakes of breath from the benches around her that greeted each barb.
She knew enough about cricket to grasp that it was most unlikely that a batsman could find himself in such a position, and her literal cast of mind did the rest. The truth is that she was shocked, though she made every effort not to show it. Others were panicking, including her family. Her daughter Carol was soon back in the Downing Street flat needing reassurance. Her son Mark was in tears on the telephone.
That most mild-mannered and forgiving of men, Keith Joseph, told him that they were no longer friends, turned his back and refused to speak to him for three years. Perhaps even Howe developed second thoughts about his conduct. At his 80th birthday party, held in the Foreign Office, with Mrs Thatcher seated in front of him, he mystified his guests with a long and rambling speech explaining why there had been a parting of the ways.
Howe was a good Christian and he had a conscience. Temperamentally, he did not like to be hated. And henceforth that was his lot from many who had over the years been well disposed to him. Conservative MPs constitute the most elusive and mendacious electorate imaginable. To learn their opinions requires reserves of guile. To influence them requires unremitting effort. Peter Morrison had neither.
He had, anyway, been a strange choice as her parliamentary private secretary. The job typically requires someone personally loyal, in touch with parliamentary opinion, a natural gossip who can, when necessary, control his tongue: Morrison — whom she had appointed because she felt sorry for him when he proved not to be up to a ministerial career — was indeed loyal and he also quite liked to gossip, at least over a drink.
But that was the problem. He not only drank, he was an alcoholic. By lunchtime he was drunk on vodka and tonic. Even sober he was intellectually incapable, often woozy, sometimes asleep. Perhaps to compensate, he had developed an insistently jovial manner and had convinced himself that any problem could be solved by cheering people up. From his optimism stemmed complacency, which added to his general inadequacy. He had no judgement, though he prided himself on having it, and so he was constantly surprised by events.
And it was on this man that Mrs Thatcher had to rely in her darkest hour. Rumours of switching rippled back and forth. Conspiracies were hatched and then dissolved, to be replaced with new ones. Politics in such circumstances always functions through plots, even if a single, all-encompassing plot is absent.
He kept his head. But as a result she lost hers. It had been agreed — also by Mrs Thatcher and Morrison, because an alternative strategy was never discussed — that she would not campaign personally. Nor would she do radio or television. Instead, she would give a number of press interviews. There were good and bad reasons for this approach. The risk of television was that, under hostile questioning, she could have seemed defensive, aggressive, shrill or all three.
That said, on television, she might have impressed MPs with her powerful personality and could have frightened them back into grumbling servility. The newspaper interviews were thought to be a more easily controllable means of projecting her message — except that the lady herself was never very controllable. In them she took it on herself to promise a referendum before sterling was ever abandoned in favour of a European single currency.
Some colleagues, even including the loyalist Cecil Parkinson, disowned it. It seemed to exemplify her waywardness and lack of collegiality.
It made the Cabinet still more wobbly. Even the loyalty Cecil Parkinson, left, was tested beyond its breaking point as pressure mounted on Mrs Thatcher from within her party At Chequers that weekend there was a large meeting of family and friends, where Morrison announced that there were votes in the bag, more than enough for a comfortable victory.
She, though, was uneasy. Then she left for Paris and the summit meeting. On Monday and Tuesday it was as if two different worlds turned on their own unconnected axes. Meanwhile, back in London those who had her fate in their hands were preparing to resolve it.
Others of her supporters were less confident. What worried them was if she beat the challenger but not by a big enough majority to win on the first ballot.