Margaret Thatcher was told in 1981 by her closest policy aide that unless she changed her “incompetent” management style she would be thrown out by her Cabinet and lose the chance to fight for a second term, it is revealed today.
In what officials called the bluntest official document ever seen in Downing Street, Mrs Thatcher, then fighting a battle with Cabinet “Wets” over the direction of economic policy, was told that her credibility and prestige were draining away very fast.
The “blockbuster” memo, written by the head of her policy unit Sir John Hoskyns, told Mrs Thatcher: “You lack management competence ... Your own leadership style is wrong. You break every rule of good man-management. You bully your weaker colleagues.”
Warming to his theme, Sir John went on: “You criticise colleagues in front of each other and in front of their officials. They can’t answer back without appearing disrespectful, in front of others, to a woman and to a prime minister. You abuse that situation. You give little praise or credit, and you are too ready to blame others when things go wrong.
“The result is an unhappy ship. People are beginning to feel that everything is a waste of time, another government is on its way to the footnotes of history. And people are starting to speculate as to who might reunite the party, as Macmillan did after Suez, if you go. But no one tells you what is happening, just as no one told Ted [Heath]. To survive you have an absolute duty to change the way you operate.”
Sir John, who left the memo called “Your Political Survival” in Mrs Thatcher’s red ministerial box as she went on holiday in August, 1981, told her to lead by encouragement, not criticism. He compared her with Churchill but said that when the Battle of Britain was over, he gave all the credit to others. “You must make the members of your team feel 10ft tall, not add to their human fears and self-doubts.”
The astonishingly personal dressing-down is revealed in Charles Moore’s biography of Thatcher, which is published today. It came at a time when her Government’s monetarist economic policy, involving spending cuts and tax rises in Geoffrey Howe’s 1981 Budget, was under ferocious attack.
Mrs Thatcher, says Moore, was constantly railing against the Wets, who included Ian Gilmour, Peter Walker and Jim Prior. In private she called them “dumb bunnies.” But she was fully aware of the threat to her position. “I could always scrub floors,” she said to Michael Scholar, her private secretary.
The Hoskyns memo came at a time when, says Moore, Mrs Thatcher was almost as irritated with her allies as with her opponents, and they with her.
In what she may have considered an insult he told Mrs Thatcher: “I believe you fill your diary because it’s a good way to avoid having to do the unpleasant strategic thinking, involving the unknowns and uncertainties, which you don’t enjoy and which is not your forte.” But in the view of Sir John his blockbuster failed. Two or three weeks later she told him that “no one has ever written like that to a prime minister before” and their working relationship was undoubtedly damaged.
Sir John believed that 1981 was the time when Mrs Thatcher first began to suffer the isolation of high office. “However it happened, the seeds of her downfall were being sown.” She went on to sack some of the Wets and strengthen her own position in an autumn reshuffle, and then won two more elections, before a similar fight with her Cabinet brought her down in 1990.
The book contains a stream of disclosures about Mrs Thatcher’s early life.
One startling revelation is that she may have won her selection as a parliamentary candidate in Finchley in 1958 by sleight of hand. Taking on three men in the final contest, she won the first round with Thomas Langton, a local man, in second place. In the next round she was adjudged to have won by 46 votes to 43. But apparently Bertie Blatch, the constituency chairman, told his son Haden that night: “She didn’t actually win. The man did, but I thought ‘He’s got a silver spoon in his mouth. He’ll get another seat. So I lost two of his votes and gave them to her.’”
Moore concludes: “So Mrs Thatcher probably [unknowingly] won her way to Parliament through fraud.”
Margaret Thatcher The Authorised Biography Volume One: Not for Turning. By Charles Moore. Allen Lane £30.