Andrew Rawnsley writes: It is the classic Spitting Image sketch of Margaret Thatcher in her pomp. The satirists created a scene in which the rubber puppet of the prime minster sat at a restaurant table surrounded by her cabinet. She orders raw steak. The waitress then asks: “And what about the vegetables?” Motioning to her cringing ministers, Mrs T replies: “They’ll have the same as me.”
That was a caricature. In his recently published memoir, Ken Clarke contends that the “Iron Lady” liked ministers who argued back and she promoted him even though they had many humdinger rows. But the Thatcher legend remains very lively in the Tory imagination. It was played up to by Theresa May when she arrived at Number 10 just over 100 days ago. “Iron Mayden” and “the new Maggie” were among the welcoming headlines in the rightwing press. Her team didn’t object. They did not discourage anyone from portraying her as a reincarnation of the dominatrix of folklore.
In her early days at Number 10, there was an ambition to achieve a grip over government more steely than that achieved by Mrs T even at the zenith of her power. Ministers reported that they were being forbidden to make any statement or give any interview unless it had first been cleared through Number 10. I wrote at the time that Mrs May would discover that she would not be able to impose such a stifling level of control. What I did not foresee – and neither did she nor anyone else – is just how rapidly cabinet cohesion would unravel. Discipline is now breaking down in a way that Mrs T would never have tolerated.
There are almost daily reveals of confidential papers prepared for internal discussions between ministers, especially of anything touching on Brexit. Mrs May says she will not give a “running commentary” on how she plans to approach the negotiations. We don’t need one because we have a running tap of leaks from within her cabinet. These are being accompanied by a drip feed of poisonous briefings, as some ministers try to promote themselves and their ambitions at the expense of rivals they seek to thwart or damage. [Continue reading…]