Yes, Minister

On May 4, 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman prime minister of Great Britain. When she resigned—aptly enough, on Thanks-giving Day, Thursday, November 22, 1990—she had held office for eleven and a half years: longer than any prime minister since Lord Salisbury almost a hundred years before, and the longest consecutive term since Lord Liverpool at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Nor did she go gladly or gracefully after all those years; her colleagues and her party had had enough of her, but her appetite for power was unslaked, as anyone who saw her performance in the No Confidence debate the afternoon of her resignation will remember.

Mr Kinnock,” she says in her memoirs, “in all his years as Opposition leader, never let me down. Right to the end, he struck every wrong note.” That’s not wholly true; when Kinnock relaxed and made fun of her, Mrs. Thatcher was utterly lost. But that afternoon, he made the speech he would have made if Mrs. Thatcher had announced her intention to stay on for another eleven years, and he was trounced. At one point, she glanced round the Commons, looking for the next heckler to destroy, and in a momentary lull sang out, “Oh come on—I’m enjoying this.” And there is no doubt she was.

This was good, rough fun. More seriously, she was combative on principle, and saw politics essentially as a series of battles, to be won by sheer willpower. Ten years before, Edward Heath had promised a regime of sound money, curbs on union power, and an end to government support for ailing industries—“no lame ducks.” The policy was dreamed up at a meeting in a hotel in the suburb of Selsdon, and the policy’s ideal citizen was promptly dubbed “Selsdon Man.” Mrs. Thatcher is unabashed about admitting that she is Selsdon Woman. Heath had been driven out of office by the failure of his industrial policy; first the power workers and then the miners had shown that they could unmake any policy for controlling wages and prices the government tried to establish. Nor did the policy of “no lame ducks” do any better. When substantial firms like Rolls Royce were about to go broke, the government took them over. Margaret Thatcher was a devout believer in the promises of 1970, and thinks to this day that it was a failure of nerve that defeated Heath. Her contempt for the interventionist policies to which Heath turned when laissez-faire had been found wanting is matched by an intense (and fully reciprocated) personal dislike of the man himself—one, though only one, of the hatreds in which her memoirs are so rich.

Her own nerve she never doubted, and with reason. She had become leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 at a point where other and more distinguished candidates had hesitated to challenge Heath for the leadership. She had risked everything by standing against him, and had done so well …

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Letters

Slips on Downing Street January 13, 1994