Bernard Ingham: Tears from an Iron Lady stabbed in back by her party

Margaret Thatcher in 1985
Margaret Thatcher in 1985
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IN his final column reflecting upon Margaret Thatcher’s downfall 25 years ago, her press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham reveals the drama behind-the-scenes and the Prime Minister’s legacy.

“BEJASUS”, Brian Mulroney, the Canadian Prime Minister, exclaimed. “Win three elections in Canada and you’d get a statue in every province. In Britain they just vote you down. What’s going on?”

The Irish in him came out as he betrayed to me his incredulity – shared by Francois Mitterrand, George Bush Senior, Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev – at Margaret Thatcher’s rejection by her party almost exactly 25 years ago.

Soon after learning in Paris that she had not won the first ballot held on November 20, she bravely went to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe dinner to mark the end of the Cold War. Her bewildered colleagues were very solicitous.

I concluded that she had had it. She had suffered a massive blow to her authority and I doubted her ability to recover from it. Next morning, I told Ambassador Ewen Fergusson as we left for London: “I fear we shall not be coming your way again.”

Everybody now knows how a majority of the Cabinet, whom she saw separately that day, abandoned her with those infamous words, “Of course, we shall back you, but we don’t think you can win”.

As she sat forlornly in the Cabinet Room at 8.30pm, she told me that everyone was deserting her. “Not everyone,” I said, trying to comfort her.

At 7.30am the next day (November 22) she tearfully told me she had decided to resign.

I announced her going at 9.30am. Tears followed in Cabinet before she pulled herself together after lunch to claim she was actually enjoying her resignation speech to the House of Commons.

Flowers from the public filled No 10 and gave me hay fever. She took her tearful leave of Downing Street on November 28 after her protégé, John Major, had been elected to replace her.

And so an astonishing era ended. I retired and found I was worn out. Thatcher, by all accounts, was like an addict undergoing cold turkey.

So why did it come to this? I reject the conspiracy theory. It is a tragic story of man’s fallibility.

After more than 11 years, there were many disappointed Tory MPs. She had sacked some, not promoted others and ignored the talents of still more.

She had tactlessly run a very wearing ship. Not everybody shared her dedication to making Britain great again, or her stamina. They wanted a quieter life.

After she had conquered inflation, Nigel Lawson’s ill-judged experiment with shadowing the deutsche mark sent prices and interest rates soaring and intensified MPs’ worries about the poll tax. The Europhiles were emboldened to seek her sceptic’s scalp.

If that is not a de-stabilising mix of emotions in MPs feeling their seats are under threat, I don’t know what is.

Yet she never quite got over her disgust at her own side’s stabbing her in the back when she was undefeated in the Commons and the country and then almost immediately wondering: “What have we done?”

After all, she was not just an ordinary PM. She had defeated defeatism. No one in 1979 expected her to bring the economy under control, tame the unions, liberate enterprise and raise Britain’s standing in the world after the Falklands and through her developing relationships with Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev.

Of course, she failed to halt the EU’s relentless advance to ever closer union which now haunts the UK again. It took so long to turn the economy round that she did less than she might have done for education, the NHS and welfare reform. She did not manage to cut public spending; only to control it.

But only a single-minded woman of exceptional drive, largely immune to male pressure in a man’s world, could from 1979 have changed the nature of Britain after 35 years of a progressively crippling political and economic consensus.

And if she never recovered from the manner of her going, British politics has not yet recovered from her existence.

Her political legacy is devastating. As she ruefully acknowledged, she made it safe to elect a Labour government again. But Tony Blair’s bid to seize the middle ground has produced first Ed Miliband and now Jeremy Corbyn. Labour is in chaos.

And, bejasus, as Mr Mulroney would say, the Tories have an identity crisis, too. After five changes of leadership since 1990, do they want to be nice and wet or fair and effective?

Perhaps in loving memory of her they might consider building a moral giant among independent nations while striving to be fair and supportive of the ordinary, decent and ambitious – which was her constituency. We would then never lack freedom, influence or political stability.

READ BERNARD INGHAM’S PREVIOUS COLUMNS ON THE END OF THE THATCHER ERA

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3