May’s per­ilous po­si­tion over Brexit is rem­i­nis­cent of the fall of Thatcher

The Independent - - News / Inside Westminster - AN­DREW GRICE

In hap­pier times, Theresa May won pos­i­tive “Mag­gie May” head­lines in right-wing news­pa­pers when they favourably com­pared her to Margaret Thatcher. To­day, there is a more omi­nous par­al­lel. May’s per­ilous po­si­tion over her Brexit deal re­minds me of the at­mos­phere at West­min­ster be­fore Thatcher was pushed out of Down­ing Street by her own party in 1990.

In both cases, a Con­ser­va­tive prime minister was seen by her MPs as re­mote, un­trust­wor­thy, “not straight”, un­will­ing to lis­ten in meet­ings with min­is­ters and back­benchers, and ut­terly de­ter­mined to

plough on with un­pop­u­lar poli­cies in or­der to avoid the dreaded “U-turn” head­line. The case for the de­fence would rightly point to a stamina, courage and re­silience lack­ing in most men.

Both lead­ers suf­fered a stream of res­ig­na­tions by min­is­ters, af­ter clashes over pol­icy and a dic­ta­to­rial style re­ly­ing on a tight in­ner cir­cle. There was a febrile at­mos­phere at West­min­ster amid fren­zied spec­u­la­tion about a lead­er­ship chal­lenge. Both prime min­is­ters went on a pretty point­less for­eign trip – Thatcher to a se­cu­rity con­fer­ence in Paris at­tended by world lead­ers, May to last week’s G20 sum­mit in Ar­gentina – when they should have been woo­ing their MPs ahead of a cru­cial vote.

Not ev­ery­thing is the same. Thatcher had been in power for 11 years with big ma­jori­ties, while May has been in of­fice for two and a half years, the last 18 months with­out a ma­jor­ity af­ter throw­ing it away last year. Their crunch votes are dif­fer­ent. Thatcher was fight­ing for her po­lit­i­cal life af­ter fail­ing to beat Michael He­sel­tine by a suf­fi­cient mar­gin in the first round of a Tory lead­er­ship elec­tion. When the re­sult was read out, I was in a scrum of jour­nal­ists in a heav­ing Com­mons com­mit­tee cor­ri­dor. We knew in­stantly that Thatcher was fin­ished; she had won, but lost, be­cause some Tory MPs would now switch to He­sel­tine in round two.

She vowed to fight on. But when she sum­moned cab­i­net min­is­ters for one-to-one ses­sions, they told her, recit­ing a pre-ar­ranged script, that they would sup­port her but she would lose. “Treach­ery with a smile on its face,” said Thatcher, who re­signed the fol­low­ing morn­ing. It was an act of regi­cide against a leader who had won three gen­eral elec­tions and, for bet­ter or worse, had trans­formed the coun­try. “What have we done?” shell-shocked Tory MPs kept say­ing to me.

May’s big vote, on her Brexit deal, will be in the Com­mons cham­ber next Tues­day evening. Again, a fren­zied at­mos­phere will build at West­min­ster dur­ing the day. If she loses, as ev­ery­one ex­pects, Tory MPs will prob­a­bly force a vote of no con­fi­dence in her as party leader. (Tory rules have changed since 1990; if May loses such a con­fi­dence vote, she will have to re­sign, with­out the same op­por­tu­nity as Thatcher to stand in the en­su­ing lead­er­ship elec­tion).

For both prime min­is­ters, the Europe is­sue was at the heart of their trou­bles, al­though Thatcher’s in­tran­si­gence over the poll tax con­vinced many Tories she could not win an­other gen­eral elec­tion. Europe felled the last three Tory prime min­is­ters – Thatcher, John Ma­jor and David Cameron. It could soon bring down May, her ca­reer killed by Cameron’s poi­sonous legacy.

One les­son from 1990: it might look like back­benchers mat­ter the most, but the cab­i­net is of­ten piv­otal. Of course, they both mat­ter; some of Thatcher’s min­is­ters, such as Kenneth Clarke, in­sist the cab­i­net was merely re­flect­ing the views of her MPs.

If the 100 or so Tory MPs who have crit­i­cised May’s deal vote against it, she would lose by al­most 200 votes and, along with her agree­ment, would surely be fin­ished. But I sus­pect the re­bel­lion will be much smaller. If we are in a grey area, what the cab­i­net does will be very im­por­tant.

It was re­veal­ing that May held an un­sched­uled meet­ing with loy­al­ist min­is­ters on Thurs­day, where some urged her to de­lay Tues­day’s vote. She re­fused, al­though it could yet be post­poned if gov­ern­ment whips tell her on Mon­day she is head­ing for a hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat. When cab­i­net mem­bers asked May for her Plan B if she loses, she was char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally sphinx-like, leav­ing her min­is­ters ex­as­per­ated. Sim­i­larly, back­benchers she has met this week grum­bled after­wards that she was “not lis­ten­ing”. An­other flashback to Thatcher. May, too, may find that her fate lies in her cab­i­net’s hands.

She would be wise to work out her Plan B, and en­sure the cab­i­net will sup­port it, be­fore Tues­day. Or, like Thatcher, she might dis­cover that “loy­al­ist min­is­ters” are less loyal than she thought, es­pe­cially those eyeing up her job.

May should also learn the other les­son from 1990: in a po­lit­i­cal cri­sis, things move very quickly. Fas­ten

your seat­belts.


For both May and Thatcher, the Europe is­sue was at the heart of their trou­bles

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