WHO: Margaret Thatcher
WHAT: Third and final volume of her authorized biography–
MARGARET THATCHER: Herself Alone, by Charles Moore
WHEN: Published by Knopf November 12, 2019
WHERE: Set in Great Britain
WHY: “Charles Moore’s MARGARET THATCHER is one of the truly great biographies.
Comprehensive and subtle, breaking new ground while being surefooted on familiar terrain. This volume completes a historical masterpiece.” —The Times of London
This book reveals…
How Margaret Thatcher’s political fate was all but sealed a full year before she left office
After thirty years, Moore pulls back the curtain on the political manuevering and plotting that drove Margaret Thatcher from Downing Street. Her decision to remove her erstwhile friend, Geoffrey Howe from the Foreign Office in July 1989 left him “sitting at his desk in tears, very very shaken” [p.329]. One friend recalled that he seriously considered “leaving and throwing in his dice behind Michael Heseltine” [p.328] but agreed to stay on as “Deputy Prime Minister,” a title that Mrs. Thatcher ensured would have little meaning.
The growing antipathy Howe harboured for Thatcher was spreading across the Party. In the aftermath of Nigel Lawson’s resignation as Chancellor in October 1989, Thatcher faced a challenge for the leadership. Although her opponent, the eccentric Anthony Meyer, was no heavyweight, Thatcher prepared for the worst suggesting, privately, that she “might do so badly that I want to throw it all in” [p.355]. Although she appeared to beat Meyer handily, she failed to understand the opposition building against her.
For the first time, Moore brings to light a secret and an incendiary note written by Tristan Garel-Jones in the Whips Office in December 1989. Writing strictly for the eyes of his Chief, Tim Renton, a full year before Thatcher left office, Garel-Jones proclaimed the Meyer leadership challenge as “the beginning of the end for Mrs Thatcher” [p. 357]. Renton, who was far closer to Geoffrey Howe than Thatcher, was minded to agree. Rather than seeking to rebuild support for the Prime Minister, Garel-Jones urged that the whips should now set about managing her demise.
The true nature of the conspiracy that forced Thatcher from office
Moore takes us through the corridors of Westminster and behind closed doors to expose the action (and inaction) that brought Thatcher down. Following the resignation of Geoffrey Howe on 1 November 1990, Moore chronicles how support for Thatcher fell away almost hour by hour: “She’s a lame duck” one MP told the whips. “I’ll vote for anyone so long as it’s not her” [p. 665].
The campaign mounted on Thatcher’s behalf was almost intentionally inadequate with senior figures absenting themselves, leaving Peter Morrison, Thatcher’s PPS, at the helm. As one of the campaign team told Moore: “He just didn’t know how do it. He was so busy drinking. He’d send me out for vodka in middle of meetings …” [p. 667]. So, confident was Morrison of victory in the first ballot that the Ambassador in Paris, where Thatcher was staying, set up champagne in her room. But the bottles remained untouched. While in public she declared her resolve to fight on, in private she “slumped. She complained of turncoats and being stabbed in the back” [p.690].
Back in London, in what Moore describes as a “conspiracy in the tradition of the Tory establishment” [pp. 730-31], we see how Thatcher’s own Ministers engineered her downfall even as they proclaimed their support. Drawing, for the first time, on the official record of Thatcher’s one-on-one meetings with her Cabinet, we see her grip on power fade away.
A particularly startling revelation comes from Moore’s exclusive access to the long-sealed records of Peter Morrison. Buried within, Moore uncovered a letter from John Major revealing the extent of his manoeuvring ahead of the second leadership ballot. Major’s purpose was to enlist Morrison to ensure that his promised nomination of Thatcher would never take effect. Even as he proclaimed his loyalty in public, Major was opening the door for his own candidacy and effectively sealing her fate. [p. 706]
How, as Prime Minister, Thatcher struggled with Europe’s leaders and her own ministers over the future of Europe
As both sides of the debate over Europe seek to claim Thatcher as their own, Moore offers the definite account of her thinking. This includes the origins of the 1988 Bruges speech, her cri de coeur against greater European integration. He relays the “absolute horror” this caused in Brussels and how she had no regrets: “She was Luther” said Charles Powell, “here she stood, she could do no other” [p. 151].
Moore explains Thatcher’s deep resistance to the consensus that Britain should join the ERM, which she considered a dangerous step towards EMU. She fought off intense pressure from Howe (as Foreign Secretary) and Nigel Lawson (as Chancellor) but, after Lawson resigned, gave into similar pleas from John Major (Lawson’s successor). Still unconvinced that ERM membership was right for Britain, Thatcher recognized she was trapped politically: “I’ve lost one Chancellor” she said, “I can’t really lose the next one” [p. 583].
Moore also chronicles Thatcher’s battles with European leaders, including Helmut Kohl (“so Germanic, so table-thumping” [p.513]) but above all Jacques Delors. While she proved able to worst him in verbal combat (“She humiliated me … I was made to look ridiculous” [p. 129]), her efforts to block his agenda for ever greater integration came to naught.
How, out of office, Thatcher’s position on Europe hardened, destroyed her relationship with John Major and foreshadowed Brexit
Shorn of the constraints of office and feeling guilty that she had not done more as Prime Minister to slow the drive to integration, Thatcher’s opposition to the European project hardened. John Major’s approach left her bitter and dismissive: “Are you trying to show your contempt for your successor?” she was asked privately in 1991. “On the contrary,” she replied, “I was trying to conceal it” [p. 760]. As time went on, she hewed ever closer to the view expressed by her husband, Denis, that Major was “a nice, useless man who cannot lead” [p. 772] and whose “tactile bonhomie” she found “slightly creepy” [p. 779].
In the run-up to the 1991 Maastricht summit, Thatcher broke with Major’s government and called openly for a referendum on the transfer of sovereignty to Brussels. As Major told Moore, he had himself been contemplating such a step “but the fact that she had called for the policy killed the policy. I couldn’t get it through Cabinet” [p. 769]. After the 1992 General Election, Thatcher worked to undermine Major’s efforts to ratify the Maastricht Treaty: her repeated calls for a referendum at this time foreshadowed the later Brexit debate. For his part, Major became so frustrated, he confessed to Moore, that he came to regret replacing her as leader. For the sake of the Party, whose divisions he believed Thatcher greatly exacerbated, “It would have been better if she had stayed and lost the election” [p. 781].
The previously untold story of how Thatcher built ties to both South Africa’s white government and the ANC as she pushed for an end to apartheid
As global pressure grew for ever greater sanctions on South Africa, Moore chronicles Thatcher’s refusal to join the pack. Instead, she maintained her relationship with the South African government and worked to convince first PW Botha and then FW de Klerk to free Nelson Mandela and end apartheid.
Moore recounts the hitherto untold story of how, even as she railed against the ANC as a “typical terrorist organization”, Thatcher oversaw increasing contact with the party through secret intelligence channels [p. 436]. Such efforts earned her the respect, if not affection, of ANC leaders: even Thabo Mbeki said privately that he considered the establishment of a direct relationship between the ANC and Thatcher a “paramount” objective [p. 443].
Moore’s account also reveals how Mandela made a secret visit to the UK in June 1990, shortly after his release from prison. When on British soil he reached Charles Powell: “Nelson Mandela telephoned me out of the blue at about a quarter to midnight tonight” Powell told Thatcher: “he was very anxious to see you” [pp. 464-65]. When Thatcher and Mandela finally met in July, Moore explains how she was much impressed by his “genuine nobility of bearing,” even as she worried about his socialist policies [p. 467].
How Thatcher’s relationship with Ronald Reagan blossomed and the extraordinary influence this brought her in Washington
Moore offers an eye-opening account of a very “special relationship” at the end of Reagan’s Presidency. US officials knew well that her intervention on an issue could be decisive: “If she calls Ronnie” recalled one senior official, “then the goose is cooked” [p. 176] For the most part, Reagan and Thatcher marched in lock step. But Moore shows that, for all their unity of purpose over ending the Cold War, Thatcher was persistently ahead of Reagan in her support for Gorbachev and his reform agenda.
Thatcher was never shy of arguing her corner in the most strident of terms. When the Administration made to support an Argentine resolution at the UN considered inimical to British interests, Charles Powell was onto the US Ambassador like a shot: Thatcher was “absolutely livid”, Powell warned, he had never before seen her “so hopping mad”. The US action was “breathtaking”, “outrageous” and “inconceivable” – and so on [p. 178]. Sure enough, US support for Argentina fell away.
None of these clashes damaged the relationship. Reagan ensured that Thatcher was the guest of honor at his final state dinner and the two showered each other with praise, even as Thatcher suffered from a virulent cold. “I had never seen Reagan dote over somebody before” recalled an aide, “He himself got her a pot of tea. He himself found her tissues …” [p. 188]. After office, the relationship endured: for Reagan, wrote his then Chief of Staff, Fred Ryan, ‘when the question involves Mrs. Thatcher, the answer is yes!” [p. 796].
How Thatcher cultivated a unique relationship with Gorbachev, which helped bring the cold war to a peaceful end
Moore demonstrates the intense loyalty Thatcher showed to Mikhail Gorbachev even as she maneuvred to ensure the West emerged victorious in the Cold War: “if Dukakis wins”, she said ahead of the 1988 US Presidential election, “Gorbachev will be my only friend left” [p. 196]. Convinced that Gorbachev was genuine in his reform efforts, she sought to help him. Fearing a hard-line coup, she wanted to keep him in power at almost any cost.
Moore shows how Thatcher preserved this relationship by delaying (but not cancelling) the expulsion of 11 KGB spies from the UK ahead of Gorbachev’s visit to Britain in early 1989: the intelligence services would have to “to string the Russians along for a few weeks more” Powell wrote to Thatcher. “Agree no action if Gorbachev is coming?” “No action” she responded [p. 206]. Moore also reveals how Thatcher played a crucial, steadying role following revelations, from British intelligence, that the Soviet Union was pursuing an illegal biological weapons programme with the potential to kill millions. ‘Gorbachev can’t know about this’ she exclaimed [p.482]. But he did. While the Bush Administration was reluctant to engage, Mrs Thatcher insisted upon action. She raised the issue directly with Gorbachev, but gave him the space to handle it without damaging relations.
How George H W Bush came to office convinced that Reagan had allowed Thatcher too much influence and how he cut her down to size
The arrival of George H W Bush as President in early 1989 proved surprisingly complicated for Thatcher. Moore lays bare the extent of the frustration at the influence Thatcher had enjoyed with Reagan. James Baker, the new Secretary of State, complained “how he’d watched Mrs. Thatcher wrap Reagan around her little finger”. “He was just smitten by her” said Bush, who explained his deliberate decision to cut Thatcher down to size: “I respect her. I like her. But I’m the President of the United States!” [p. 197]
Moore reveals Thatcher’s anxiety as the Bush Administration chose to strengthen ties with the Germans at Britain’s expense. In his diary, in early 1989, Bush confided that he expected his relationship with Thatcher to be “pretty difficult”. Helmut Kohl, on the other hand was “like a great big teddy bear!” [p. 228-229]. And so it proved. Within months of taking office, Bush reversed course on nuclear negotiations in Europe at Kohl’s behest. In Charles Powell’s view, “Once Bush turned to Germany, that was the end of it all” [pp. 224-225].
The truth about Thatcher’s hostility to the Germans and her efforts to block German reunification
The prospect of German reunification, to which Thatcher was staunchly opposed, pushed her and Bush further apart. Moore conveys the depth of Thatcher’s anti-German prejudice, which often drowned out her rational objections. As she said privately “The Germans need to have Europe to prove that Germany is all right. And they only need to prove that Germany is all right because it isn’t.” [p. 472].
Moore exposes Thatcher’s extraordinary efforts to build a coalition against reunification with the likes of Bush, Mitterrand and Gorbachev – all of which came to naught and, as Brian Mulroney recalled, left Bush “irritated as hell” with Thatcher [p. 488]. Moore reveals how an emissary was sent to warn Number 10 that Bush was deeply uncomfortable with her anti-German rants and, in particular, her suggestion that the Soviets might remain in East Germany after reunification as a safeguard against rising German power. Thatcher got the message and her tone evolved. But, in private, she didn’t relent. Against a note that Bush “could not conceive how you could think of the Russians as possible allies against Germany”, Thatcher scribbled “1941-45” [p. 525]. She never quite let go of the idea that something similar to the wartime alliance against Hitler might be needed to restrain a united Germany.
The truth of how and why Thatcher urged Bush not to “go wobbly” over the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait
Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 saw the UK and US draw close once more. Moore shows how Thatcher reinforced the President’s determination to act when some in his Administration were wavering. Cutting through the myth, Moore shows exactly how and when Thatcher told Bush that was “no time to go wobbly”. Although at the time it was a friendly and supportive suggestion, towards the end of his life Bush came to resent this as shorthand for the view that Thatcher had “stiffened his spine” in the crisis.
Moore recounts how Thatcher repeatedly urged the allies to action, arguing that a dictator such as Saddam Hussein would never back down. “Oh George!” she exclaimed as James Baker talked endlessly of the importance of going back to the UN, “Let’s just go do it!” [p. 642]. She believed, from very early on, that military action would be needed.
How efforts to force Charles Powell out of Downing Street brought Thatcher and her government to the brink of crisis
Moore’s book lifts the lid on the growing resentment within government towards Charles Powell, ensconced as Thatcher’s indispensable adviser on foreign policy and much more besides. In 1988, senior mandarins, backed by Geoffrey Howe, fought a relentless battle to prise Powell out of Downing Street. At first Thatcher agreed but, at the last minute, went back on her word and insisted that Powell stay.
An epic row followed. So ferocious were the exchanges, that Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, destroyed the official records at Thatcher’s request. But copies of these documents, unearthed by Moore, portray a complete breakdown between Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary. Thatcher accused Butler of being “cruel” and “selfish”. “She had to fight the FCO all the way (and needed Mr. Powell’s help to do it)” [p. 309]. Butler held firm: if she refused to let Powell go, he would resign, plunging her government into crisis. Still she refused to lose Powell. In the end, Butler withdrew his resignation threat; both he and Powell stayed but Thatcher’s relationship with her final Cabinet Secretary was forever damaged.
How Thatcher took up the green mantle and assumed global leadership over tackling climate change
In 1988, Thatcher became the first major world leader to speak out about climate change. Tracing the origins of her interest, Moore finds her training as a scientist drove her conversion to the cause. She advanced green ideas against the scepticism of her ministers (“These bizarre ideas are contrary to Government policy, and are political dynamite” wrote her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, on one speech draft [p. 413]). Her advocacy of the green agenda afforded her a leading position on the world stage and helped gain acceptance of the international approach to tackling climate change that persists to this day.
How Thatcher’s efforts to ban Peter Wright’s Spycatcher were fatally undermined by a member of the British establishment
Moore takes us inside Thatcher’s ill-fated decision to try and block publication of Peter Wright’s book about his time in MI5. Thatcher had little idea of the complications that would ensue, nor was she aware that one of her advisers (Victor Rothschild) had secretly helped instigate Wright’s book in the first place.
Rothschild’s establishment credentials and links to the intelligence services gave fuel to claims that Wright was the victim of a government plot. Moore also reveals that, faced with the possibility of prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, Rothschild claimed that he had been operating at the behest of the (now deceased) Chief of MI6 [p. 246]. Although senior officials dismissed this claim, had it become public it would have thrown the government’s case into crisis. Rothschild was never prosecuted.
As Moore explains, the decision to try and block Wright’s book was doomed from the start, but none of this would have swayed Thatcher. As Robert Armstrong put it, “She had a simple conviction that a man who behaved like a traitor should be pursue” [p. 240].
The inside story of Thatcher’s war on the IRA
Disillusioned with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Thatcher had little appetite for another political initiative in her third term. Instead, she told Charles Haughey: “I have one objective: to beat the IRA” [p. 278]. Moore vividly describes her hatred of terrorism and the murderous campaign of the IRA (“they’re as bad as Nazis” [p. 268]).
After three IRA operatives were shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar, in March 1988, Moore shows how Downing Street was slow to recognize the international implications and political fall-out that would ensue. He also describes Thatcher’s fury at the decision of Thames Television to air the documentary, Death On the Rock, which questioned the official British account. As Moore puts it, “She was incapable of seeing – or perhaps did not wish to see – that it is part of the work of journalism to uncover stories which governments, including British governments, want concealed” [p. 275].
Moore also discusses the “back channel” line of communication between the British Government and the IRA. As Robin Butler put it, Thatcher accepted its existence “but didn’t ask any questions. She wouldn’t have wanted to know any more about it”’ [p.285] Thatcher became more detached from policy towards Northern Ireland towards the end of her premiership, but she could not escape the personal consequences of the Troubles. Moore recounts her anguish at the IRA’s murder of her friend and former PPS, Ian Gow – it was the only time Charles Powell saw her break down completely, “weeping uncontrollably” [p.594]. The loss of Gow added to her sense of isolation near the end of her premiership.
The unhappy contours of Thatcher’s adjustment to life after Downing Street and what followed
Moore reveals how, after her sudden removal from office, Thatcher was in “a very wobbly state”. Repeatedly, she would say to those around her that it was like “having a mosaic smashed into little pieces on the floor” [pp. 733-734]. It became difficult even to fill her day. As her political secretary, Mark Worthington, put it, “The Almighty had shaped her to be prime minister, but not to do anything else. She was made to sit there and take decisions. If there were no decisions to take, she did not know what to do” [p. 747].
In time, now Lady Thatcher found a new routine, speaking abroad for substantial sums and writing her memoirs which, as Moore reveals, brought her £6 million [p. 752]. Moore also sheds new light on her distress after General Pinochet’s arrest in Britain in 1998. Given everything Pinochet had done for Britain during the 1982 Falklands conflict she considered his treatment unjust, but also worried about the consequences for her own position. As her Chief of Staff put it: “What will be this Government’s attitude if an arrest warrant is issued for you at the hands of a Left-wing Spanish judge?” [p. 821]. She championed Pinochet’s cause and encouraged him as best she could. At one point, she sent him some malt whisky: “Scotch” she wrote, “is one British institution which will never let you down” [p. 822].
How she struggled with declining health and had to contend with family problems
Moore’s account presents a sensitive account of Thatcher’s health troubles, explaining the “small strokes” that forced her to retire from public speaking and how she resisted her doctors: “There’s nothing wrong with me” she insisted [p. 828]. Losing Denis, in 2003, was another blow that left her, in the words of her doctor, “depressed and lonely” [p. 831]. Only gradually did a recovery of sorts set in: her spirits rose even as she remained frail physically.
There were problems with her children. Moore relates Thatcher’s distress after Mark was arrested, in 2004, for alleged involvement in the Wonga coup plot. Although desperate to help, as Julian Seymour, her Chief of Staff, put it “she knew the game with her son” [p. 840]. So, Thatcher provided the funds for his bail but on the condition that he paid her back through the sale of Edward Seago paintings that he owned. As Moore relates, the whole business upset her greatly, but due to the loss of memory associated with her illness, only occasionally did she remember what had happened.
Moore also lifts the lid on the surprisingly distant relationship between Thatcher and her daughter, Carol. Unlike Mark, Carol was not attracted to the scenes of fame and power. She was very different from her mother and resisted her efforts to have her dress (or indeed behave) more conventionally: “I hate my mother” she would say on occasion. In old age, Carol rarely visited. Moore recounts how, in 2008, Thatcher became “incredibly angry” on discovering – through a television interview – that Carol had made public her mother’s struggle with dementia. In her rage Thatcher declared she would disinherit Carol and took steps to do so, although she was eventually dissuaded [pp. 840-841].
How Denis Thatcher forged a close relationship with a former showgirl at the heart of the Profumo scandal
While the Thatcher marriage was strong, Moore reveals how Denis struck up a surprisingly intimate relationship with Mandy Foreman, who, as Mandy Rice-Davis, had been one of the two women at the center of the Profumo scandal. Finding Denis “rather lonely”, Foreman befriended him: “He liked strong women, quite bossy women” she told Moore. Denis would visit her regularly at her flat and wrote her affectionate letters (beginning “Mandy dear”). Thatcher met Foreman only briefly at a couple of parties: “She had a kind of forensic stare” recalled Foreman. “She was working me out” [pp. 815-816].
How the Queen showed Thatcher unusual favor in her post-office years
Moore shows that, contrary to some speculation, Thatcher and the Queen enjoyed their own special relationship. Emerging from the Audience at which she told the Queen that she would resign, Thatcher was so distressed that she was “unable to speak”. Returning to Downing Street she rushed to the bathroom and wept: “It’s when people are kind to you that you feel it most” she said. “The Queen has been so kind so me” [p. 712].
The Queen, herself, chose to award Thatcher the Order of Merit on leaving office and, later, asked her to join the Order of the Garter. Breaking with precedent, the Queen attended Thatcher’s seventieth and her eightieth birthday parties. After the speeches at the latter, the Queen turned to Thatcher and apologized that she had to leave. “What a good idea” replied Thatcher. “I think I’ll go too”. “You’d better not” replied the Queen. “It’s your party!” [p. 835]. The Queen’s decision to attend Thatcher’s funeral offered a final verdict of respect for her eighth Prime Minister. Of all her prime ministers, she has attended the funerals only of Thatcher and Winston Churchill.
With 24 pages of photos.
1006 pages. $40 ISBN 978-1-101-94720-3
To interview the author, contact
Nicholas Latimer | 212-572-2106