The Iron Fault

Margaret Thatcher prided herself on her resolute consistency, a lady not for turning, a conviction politician with no time for consensus politics. In the realm of cabinet government, where authority is drawn from a majority in parliament, the ability of a leader to persuade those around them is of paramount importance. As Prime Minister one can get away with a certain amount of unilateral decision making, especially when it is junior ministers who disagree with you, but the ability of a leader to overrule senior ministers (especially the Chancellor of the Exchequer) has a short shelf life.
     If the conclusion above is correct then how then did Margaret Thatcher remain in power for so long? The answer lies in one of the essential components of the Westminster system, a credible alternative government-in-waiting in opposition. After Callaghan’s shaky minority Labour government fell in 1979, the party languished in fractious opposition for far too long. It put off modernization and remained committed to unpalatable socialism until Tony Blair re-branded it as New Labour after he took the leadership in 1994. Faced with such a jaundiced opposition the Falklands war gave Margaret Thatcher all she needed to win the 1983 and 1987 elections. She said after leaving the Commons that she intended to contest the 1992 election and retire about two years after that, which would have extended her tenure to nearly sixteen years. For someone who did not learn of the importance of persuasion and maintaining key supporters, this seems like a nonsensical ambition.
     It is painfully obvious to all who study Westminster politics that the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer can make or break the government. The struggle between Blair and Brown has become almost legendary, in New Zealand the falling out between David Lange and Roger Douglas sunk the fourth Labour government. Margaret Thatcher battled her Chancellor Nigel Lawson over joining the ERM and he eventually resigned in 1989. That event did not destroy her but it did deepen divisions within the Tory party and should have triggered a need for caution and rebuilding on the part of the Prime Minister. But she was so self-assured, so egotistical that she continued much as she had, patronizing cabinet colleagues and taking an increasingly hard line against Europe.       
     Geoffrey Howe was her first Chancellor, and longtime deputy Prime Minister, a senior and extremely respected member of the Tory party. He opposed her on European policy but for a long time remained in her government, bound by loyalty and a wish to get other work done. Margaret Thatcher could not persuade him that European federation was something to be resisted, and she could not change her mind, the lady’s not for turning after all. Howe resigned on the 1st of November 1990 and delivered a speech from  the backbenches on the 13th that fatally weakened Margaret Thatcher, providing the opportunity for Michael Heseltine to challenge her for the leadership. The conclusion to be drawn from this is obstinacy is damaging. Die hard principle is unsustainable as politics requires the give and take of war, in order to win a battle here, one may have to sustain a loss there. Never say never. Thatcher’s downfall was only ever going to happen like it did because politics is ruthlessly Darwinian, if you threaten the system it will try to eliminate you. Thatcher forgot that.

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