Just like Thatcher, Theresa May must be both fox and lion to survive

She’s in trouble, big trouble. Westminster is alive with leaks of cabinet rows. Government policy is a shambles. The lobby is a cauldron of midsummer madness. The prime minister has lost her grip. She must go, by Christmas if not by the party conference. It’s only a matter of when, not if.

Parallels are the fool’s gold of political history, but they can sometimes have magnetic appeal. In summer 1981, Margaret Thatcher’s brief premiership appeared to be nearing its end. Her signature “hard” economic policy was failing. Unemployment was rising and inflation hovered around a horrific 20%. The chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, had hardly a single cabinet supporter.

Thatcher was the most unpopular prime minister since records began, and her government the worst, with just 18% support. She was entombed with her husband and a cabal of aides in Downing Street, reportedly an exhausted and lonely “zombie”. The lobbies were gripped by one topic alone: the succession.

Four rival leadership candidates were already “on manoeuvres”. Only Thatcher’s deputy Willie Whitelaw and the foreign secretary Lord Carrington were publicly loyal to her. Her biographer Charles Moore recalled her paranoia, “an obsession with leaks”. She had already sacked Norman St John Stevas for a harmless impropriety. She now felt constantly “ambushed and outnumbered”. The Spectator party that year was suffused with the halitosis of ambition. Political editors were betting five to one against the leader surviving to Christmas.

In advance of that year’s Tory conference in Blackpool, the anti-Thatcherite “wets” in the cabinet went on a public rampage. Francis Pym and Jim Prior made openly disloyal speeches. The lord chancellor, Lord Hailsham, made comparisons with the Great Depression. In Liverpool, Thatcher was pelted with tomatoes and toilet rolls. The US ambassador cabled that “Britain has lost its grip on the rudder”. Worse, Labour under Michael Foot split, and the new Social Democrat party under Roy Jenkins were winning 50% poll support. The Tories were in third place, trailing both the SDP and Labour. Politics appeared to be realigning.

Thatcher’s response to these events, as recounted in biographies and memoirs of the period, runs counter to her public image. Despite her strident rhetoric, she softened on one policy after another. She compromised on her first steps to trade union reform. She backed away from an early confrontation with the miners. She was consoling on cuts, and promised an economy “turning the corner”. The Thatcher historian John Campbell suggests that her decisions at the time were “a casebook of prudence overruling instinct, head ruling heart”. In his view, her first government was probably her best, better than when she ruled unchallenged after 1983.

In contrast, Thatcher was ruthless towards her colleagues, adhering to Macchiavelli’s maxim, that a leader must be fox and lion. A wounding internal memo from her staff had told her bluntly that her survival was at risk. Her style was wrong, her management incompetent and she made her colleagues unhappy and demoralised. To Whitelaw, government was “not fun any more”. She had to pull her socks up or they would all be out of work.

Thatcher reacted in the only immediate way a prime minister can. She staged a September reshuffle. Out went the three wets she judged as having least party support. She moved those she dared not sack, such as Prior, to less potent jobs and promoted others on whom she and Howe could rely, such as Norman Tebbit, Cecil Parkinson and Nigel Lawson. With potential challengers newly in office, the rebels lacked a plausible candidate to replace her. She had bought time, politics’ most valuable commodity.

Thatcher kept her nerve and outmanoeuvred her foes. By the following spring, she was not safe, but she was still in office and growing stronger. The economy was on the mend, and the polls were improving. Then the Falklands changed history.

The differences between 1981 and today are manifold. Thatcher had a usable majority, May does not. Thatcher had recession, May has the even more divisive challenge of Brexit. But in both cases, they were forced by the nature of events to form internal coalitions. Thatcher had to embrace the feuding wings of her own party. May is in a similar position. Like Thatcher she is already guarding her flank on policy, with concessions on the schools budget. She even offered a bipartisan olive branch to Labour.

The next 18 months of Brexit seem certain to inflict on British politics a trauma as uncertain in its outcome as the Falklands war. Somehow May has to fashion a deal with the EU that can pass for Brexit with a human face. She must then sell it to her party and the public, perhaps even conceding a second referendum.

To achieve this, May must know that she has no option but to stand shoulder to shoulder with her chancellor, Philip Hammond, against the Brexit fundamentalists. She must demand the loyalty of her dysfunctional negotiating trio. She is in the same position as every British leader for a millennium, struggling to close yet another chapter in Britain’s ambiguous relationship with Europe.

The prime minister is constitutionally the most powerful leader in Europe, subject to no check beyond the support of her immediate colleagues in delivering her a Commons majority. In this respect, Thatcher was more vulnerable to rebellious cabinet colleagues eager to topple her than May is. Yet she manipulated the power she still enjoyed, notably over cabinet patronage, to guard her position and cripple her enemies. She had the will-power to win. Deep down I think she enjoyed it.

Is that true of Theresa May? As the Westminster hotheads retreat to the beach, May’s coalition of Brexit hards and softs, of musketeers and pirates, of last-ditchers and no-hopes will probably come to see her as their best chance of staying in office, at least for the duration of Brexit, after which all bets are off. Thatcher’s 1981 route map showed that such a resurrection can take place.

But I sense it will depend not on the will of the Tory party, but on the self-confidence of May herself. It will depend on her inner resolve to come back and win.

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