Charles Moore: David Cameron is the first PM who can handle Thatcher’s legacy
With the second volume of his authorised biography of Thatcher out today, Charles Moore talks to Joy Lo Dico about getting to know the Iron Lady, and why he remains a historian, not a groupie
As David Cameron prepares to address his party at the Conservative conference tomorrow an inconvenient new book will arrive on the stands in Manchester. It is not Call Me Dave, Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s scurrilous biography of the Prime Minister - that arrived yesterday. It is volume two of Charles Moore’s authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher (the first was published on St George’s Day, just after her death two years ago) and anyone seen carrying a copy of it can expect a good rollicking from the Leftie protesters camped outside the conference.
For three decades the Conservatives have been trying to shrug off her shadow. Even David Cameron’s stunning win in this year’s election sent pundits back to Thatcher: the last Prime Minister to increase the party’s majority on a second election was Thatcher in 1983, the starting point for this volume, and Cameron repeated this feat without a Falklands War to assist him.
Surely the book’s timing is disingenuous? Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, and a man who looks like he ought to always have a leather club chair to recline in, says times have changed. Cameron has performed another feat: he is the first Tory leader who can look at Thatcher “with a certain level of detachment” he told me when we met for lunch at J Sheekey yesterday.
“He’s the first one who I think is quite good at handling the Thatcher legacy,” says Moore. “He’s pro her in a broad way” but he doesn’t feel any pressure to define himself against her. “Every other Tory leader had an agonising choice — ‘Am I going to repudiate her or suck up to her?’ — and both of them were unsatisfactory traditions. He’s got quite a clever way of doing both.”
I suggest to Moore that her legacy, and also that of Blair, hang over Cameron in one way — the fear of overstaying one’s welcome in No 10. In an interview just before this May’s election, he said he wouldn’t stand for a third term and last week the Spectator, reporting sources from Downing Street, said the spring conference 2019 was the date pencilled in for making way for the next leader.
“Some people say it’s his wife Samantha,” says Moore. “I think the truth is that you do run out of road if you stay in office too long. Almost regardless of whether you are doing well or not, your colleagues just want to get rid of you. There comes a point when that becomes almost unbearable because they want to replace you. That’s what happened with Blair and Brown.”
Did Thatcher, eventually deposed in 1990, ever consider leaving of her own volition, or did she regard it as her right to lead for as long as she was elected? “Thatcher did consider standing down for her 10th anniversary in May 1989,” says Moore. “But she didn’t. She temperamentally didn’t want to. She knew she should.”
At the end of this volume, Moore notes that her most trusted official, Charles Powell, wrote her a letter just after the election in 1987 which advised in gentle but clear terms that she should stand down before the next election (“bravely”, says Moore, twice).
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This volume is subtitled Everything She Wants after a Wham song of the era, not something Moore himself knew of. Someone at the publisher suggested the title, he explains. “There’s good line in it ‘Won’t you tell me, why I work so hard for you?’, which many of her staff would have understood.”
So why was Moore, above all others, given the task of writing the three-volume biography? So far the task has taken 18 years, with the final volume not due for another couple of years. Moore had the right CV: editor of the Spectator at 28, the Sunday Telegraph and finally the Daily Telegraph. It was then he was asked out to lunch by Lady Thatcher’s private secretary, Julian Seymour.
Moore has answered the question as to why him numerous times with an almost priestly “I don’t know, I just got the call”. But I put it a different way: much was made of Thatcher’s tendency to employ dapper men in her Cabinet and, as Moore himself notes, during her courting years before Denis arrived, she seemed drawn to men of a different class from her own merchant roots in Grantham. Was there something in Old Etonian Moore’s almost aristocratic demeanour, charm and looks that drew her to him?
Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume Two: Everything She Wants
He momentarily stutters at this question. “If you are implying ...” and then tries again. “If she thought of it that way, she must have been blind, as far I know she wasn’t. I think she probably wanted someone of a younger generation.”
They were friendly but Moore does not pretend to a particular social closeness, which meant when it came to writing a book he had no sense of compromise: “I didn’t owe her anything, she didn’t owe me anything,” he says.
He is keen to define himself as a historian rather than any sort of Thatcher groupie and talks of his task as an academic one. He will not answer any questions where an answer could be construed as “What Mrs Thatcher would have thought was”. “I refuse the premise of such questions, I always say ‘I don’t know’. My only selling point is that I try to write what she did.”
But historians are never really neutral. You can see it in the details he lingers on, for example, the miners’ strike where he unpicks the “mythologising” of the defeat of the working-class miners by pushing forward some forgotten facts: NUM leader Arthur Scargill didn’t call a ballot before the 1984 strike. A third of workers, largely from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, did not walk out, and by the end of the dispute over half were working. Thatcher had sympathy with the working miners and wrote supportively to their wives. Finally, Scargill used his union members as pawns in his declared mission to bring down the government. “If that’s the sort of contest you want, the government has to win it. And she won,” says Moore in a moment of animation. “She absolutely bloody well won. And of course what they hadn’t bargained for, the Left, or indeed many Tories, was that she would actually win and keep winning.”
Maggie and me: Charles Moorewith Margaret Thatcher in 1995
Hisother technique for framing Thatcher is to note the times when she had unexpected sympathies. One such instance is drawn from his first proper conversation with her.
Moore had followed her around the campaign trail when he was a young whippersnapper on the Telegraph politics desk in 1983 but only spoke to her eye-to-eye two years later at a House of Commons dinner, where he decided to challenge her over the Anglo-Irish agreement.
“I said she was betraying the Unionists by making the agreement over their heads, and how could she do it when she rescued the Falklands,” recounts Moore. “She, of course, was terrifically angry.” But Thatcher picked up the fight. “She didn’t just say ‘Run along little man’. She wanted to have the argument. She went into a great thing about how badly a lot of Protestants had treated Catholics. It was a classic frightening encounter with her but in an odd way — quite fierce but not hostile.”
Despite not wanting Thatcher’s views projected forwards onto modern politics, Moore slips when discussing Europe. He is an armchair eurosceptic, his views filtering through in columns in the Spectator and Telegraph.
Iron Lady:Margaret Thatcher in1984(Picture: PA)
Thatcher was warm to the idea of a union of nations in the Seventies for the sake of peace and trade but come 1984, and her now famous “I want our money back” demand for a rebate, her attitude had hardened. Her prediction was that Germany would come to dominate Europe.
“Mrs Thatcher was absolutely clear — mainly in private — that if you have single currency, Germany will become the great power in Europe because it will be built on their model and with their success and they will therefore dictate the terms,” says Moore. “Helmut Kohl always used to say ‘It is better to have European Germany otherwise you will have a German Europe’. Mrs Thatcher’s answer to that was “it comes to the same thing.”
The power bred resentment. “This is what is happening with Greece, so it is a very grim situation for Germany funnily enough. In a way she foresaw all this. She always thought for herself, she could be quite crude and strange sometimes in the way she thought, but was very perceptive.”
Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume Two: Everything She Wants, £30