Wednesday 16 October 2019

Sean O'Grady: 'Ex-PMs can't resist sticking their oar in - but perhaps May should listen'

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville

Sean O'Grady

Theresa May is getting rattled. Having stand-up spats with Jean-Claude Juncker and "slapping down" Tony Blair, telling him he's insulted the office he once held, is not the sort of dignified behaviour of a strong and stable person at ease with what they are doing.

She needs to chill, and maybe acquire a bit of perspective. Ex-UK prime ministers have quite often been quite badly behaved. You shouldn't be that surprised, I suppose: if they didn't think they'd do a better job of running their party and the country they'd never have got to No 10 anyway. They tend to have big egos, you see.

The Tories are actually much the worst. David Cameron, trotters up somewhere, has kept his snout out of things, but then again he hasn't got much option other than to keep his head down, so poor is his standing. Having said that, he has recently had the audacity to float the idea of him coming back as foreign secretary. Like I say, big egos.

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The biggest ego of all was Margaret Thatcher, the nearest thing to an eternal deity the Tories possess. After she was voted out by her own MPs in 1990, she spent the rest of her political career wrecking her successor John Major's government and causing trouble.

She voted against her own party on numerous occasions, on Europe, obviously, but also over the war in Bosnia, and let it be known that she thought Ken Clarke a very good chancellor - "a very good Labour chancellor". She backed Michael Portillo to replace Major almost immediately, and then boosted Blair and helped him end the 18 years of Tory government she had inaugurated in 1979.

In the 1990s, overawed young Eurosceptic backbenchers were wheeled in to see her to stiffen their resolve to vote against the Maastricht Treaty. She told one, John Whittingdale, that his problem was that his brain wasn't connected to his backbone. Those children of Thatcher are still engaged in civil war in her name, driven by her memory like she was the ghost of Lady Macbeth.

Major summed it up thus, and her posthumous presence has importance for today: "It was a unique occurrence in our party's history: a former prime minister openly encouraging backbenchers in her own party, many of whom revered her, to overturn the policy of her successor ... It was Margaret's support for the defeat of the Maastricht legislation which helped to turn a difficult task for our whips into an almost impossible one."

In many ways, then, Thatcher's influence is still being felt acutely in No 10. Maggie is haunting them still. Thatcher in turn had been tormented by the man she ousted as leader, Ted Heath. From 1975, when he suffered the humiliation of being beaten by a woman, almost to the day he died he kept up an unrelenting campaign of hostility to her - "the incredible sulk". He said she had a "tiny mind" about Europe and was unnecessarily cruel. Blair is at least more polite than that.

Thatcher also had to contend with the put-downs of another former prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who also didn't think much of her or, as it happens, Heath ("very good number two; not a leader"). Bored, missing the trappings of power, itching to get back on the pitch, ex-prime ministers can't help themselves. But why should they? They've plenty of advice and experience to offer. Theresa May should value and listen to what they have to say. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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