Big beasts did for Maggie, but May faces small fry

Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher.
Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher.
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If you believe all you read, our Tory government is uniquely in trouble.

This proves memories are short. Let’s go back to 1989, an annus horribilis – one of several – in Margaret Thatcher’s 11 years in No 10. I know because I was at the heart of it.

Margaret Thatcher fielding questions with Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe in 1989. Picture: Martin Keene/PA Wire

Margaret Thatcher fielding questions with Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe in 1989. Picture: Martin Keene/PA Wire

The economy was deteriorating after Chancellor Nigel Lawson lost control of inflation. Thatcher was mortified to discover from the Financial Times that he was experimenting expensively behind her and the Cabinet’s back by shadowing the Deutschmark. It didn’t work. Interest rates were hoisted to 15 per cent to try to choke off inflation.

Lawson’s clever-dickery reflected his desire to run the economy without let or hindrance. Thatcher reminded him she was still the First Lord of the Treasury. At the same time Sir Geoffrey Howe wanted to run foreign policy on his own and, like Lawson, was wittering away about 
joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).

She later shifted Howe from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to lead the Commons as deputy PM – a title he demanded as the price for losing foreign affairs. It was a meaningless title because, unlike William Whitelaw, his predecessor, he wanted the PM’s job. In other words, the two most senior Cabinet Ministers were in league over the ERM – as together they demonstrated in the PM’s study just as she was leaving for the EC Summit in Madrid on Sunday, June 25. They said they would resign if she did not set a date for entering the ERM.

I have never known a more poisonous atmosphere on the plane to Spain with the PM and Howe, still Foreign Secretary, in different compartments. Relations were so bad that she declined to go to our ambassador’s party that evening. I thought it prudent to stay away, too.

To cut a long story short, she did not set a date for ERM entry and unusually at the next Cabinet meeting stood at the door to remark to Howe and Lawson as they entered that they had not resigned.

Then Norman Tebbit, by now retired from the Government, wrote an article criticising the PM’s leadership and style of management.

As if that was not enough, the Chancellor and Sir Alan Walters, the PM’s economic adviser, were at loggerheads and eventually on October 26 the Chancellor resigned, blaming Walters, who immediately tendered his resignation. Again the atmosphere was toxic. Lawson wanted to announce his departure at 3.10pm just before the PM stood up in the Commons to take questions and then give a statement on a fractious Commonwealth conference in Kuala Lumpur. He was persuaded to desist until 4.30pm.

This brings us to December 5 when Sir Anthony Meyer, a dripping Wet and Europhile, challenged Thatcher’s leadership as a stalking horse – the first Tory leadership election in 15 years.

Thatcher got 84 per cent of the vote to Meyer’s eight but with abstentions and spoilt papers 60 Tory MPs had declined to back Thatcher. I fear this was not taken as seriously as it should have been. In just under a year Thatcher was ousted.

Let that be a warning to Theresa May, you may say, given that Thatcher had a majority of around 100 in the House while May’s hangs by the thread of Northern Irish support. If stupid Tories can get rid of a woman who won three elections, they will not jib at ditching one with no working majority at all, even with Marxist Jeremy Corbyn in the wings.

But there are differences between now and 1989. Europe is once again the great divider, but today the economy is in a better shape.

In 1989 economic pressure on the public was intensified by the impending community charge – poll tax – that had Tory MPs worried about their seats. Labour’s lead was then up to 15 points, though nobody was willing to predict a Neil Kinnock victory. Corbyn’s lead is now marginal and Mrs May’s personal standing is rising.

Thatcher was inevitably in trouble. Superficially, leave aside her precarious Commons position, Mrs May is in a stronger position with longer to go to a general election and no big beasts – only minnows – braying and snorting in the Westminster jungle.

Against this background, my advice to Mrs May is to stand firm on sound economics, responsible capitalism, working for the many and not just the few and a clean break Brexit.

On Europe Thatcher capitulated to the demand – eventually disastrous – to enter the ERM.

Stick to your guns, Mrs May. Let consistency be your friend.