Margaret Thatcher – an effective Prime Minister

9 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher was, above all, an effective Prime Minister. In all the flood of tributes, both admirers and critics agree that she got things done. She did not just want to hold office, but to use it. She did not just hoard political capital, she risked it, generally to advantage. She changed the political landscape and the terms of debate not only during the eleven and a half years of her premiership but for nearly two decades afterwards.

She was obviously an extraordinary political leader, with a unique, uncompromising style. She did not shrink from confrontation and openly scorned consensus. She was a conviction politician, who sharply divided people. While, in retrospect, you can point to tides of opinion – against the trade unions and the post-war state – which ran in her favour, that was not always obvious at the time. The famous ‘Lady’s not for turning’ statement of October 1980 was made because so many MPs and commentators believed she would be forced into a U-turn on economic policy, just as Edward Heath had been eight years earlier.

Yet Baroness Thatcher did not achieve as much as she did just by being a battering ram. She was a subtle political operator who mastered the Whitehall machine and used its levers skillfully. She displayed many of the characteristics which Institute for Government work has shown make for an effective minister who achieves their objectives.

There are several wider lessons:

1. Have a clear set of values and priorities. No one doubted her strategy, which allowed her considerable freedom of manoeuvre over tactics.
2. Don’t rush everything at once. Lady Thatcher was bold in her ambitions, unlike Tony Blair in his first term, but advanced one battle, or two battles, at a time, unlike the current coalition with its broad front attempt to change the NHS, tuition fees, welfare, schools and the police all in one term. Consequently, trade union reform was spread over nearly a decade, privatization only got into its stride in the second term, and schools and health reform only really developed after her third victory in 1987. That gradualism ensured that most of her changes stuck and have not subsequently been reversed in substance.
3. Pick your fights. Lady Thatcher never lacked courage but she could be cautious. She deferred a battle over pit closures in early 1981 when coal stocks were low but was far better prepared in 1984 when the NUM triggered a strike without a ballot, which not only divided their own members but occurred when the Government was in a stronger position.
4. Master the detail. Lady Thatcher spent a long time reading in full submissions made to her, and she was as interested in implementation as the original proposal.
5. Listen to advice. Contrary to the ‘Spitting Image’ caricature of the time, she did listen, even if she did not always agree – as long as the minister or civil servant was well briefed, tenacious and could present a convincing case. She could, however, be merciless to anyone – minister or civil servant – who did not appear to be fully briefed or was weak in argument.

Of course, not everything went smoothly. Many mistakes were made, notably after her third election victory in 1987 when she became increasingly isolated from all but her most fervent allies, and notably from Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe, the two most important co-architects of economic Thatcherism. She was less willing to listen to advice by then. While all the formal constitutional procedures of decision-making were followed over the introduction of the poll tax, or community charge, there was a reluctance to stop and reflect about whether it would work – in face of the implacable skepticism of, and opposition from, the Treasury.

Above all, Lady Thatcher could not indefinitely defer the corroding effects of time. All leaders lose touch, take short cuts, and become more unpopular after several years in power.

For all her single-minded use of power, she did not fundamentally change the office of Prime Minister, relying on civil servants as well as politically appointed advisers, though some of the former such as Lord (Charles) Powell of Bayswater and Sir Bernard Ingham became strongly personally identified with her.

The measure of her effectiveness is her legacy – a formidable list of legislative and policy changes which stand to this day.

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