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Maggie Thatcher’s long goodbye

Just two nights before Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister, 20 years ago this month, she ha

As I drove in to the House of Commons on 22 November 1990, a television reporter shouted from behind her camera, "She's gone." For a moment I experienced the feeling of disbelief that made so many parish clerks refuse to nail the news of Queen Victoria's death to their noticeboards. Margaret Thatcher had seemed immortal. Superstition had been reinforced by the evidence provided by the television news just two nights before. The prime minister, in the courtyard of the British embassy in Paris, had snatched the microphone from the hand of the BBC's John Sergeant and announced that, although she had narrowly failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority on the first ballot in the Conservative leadership election, she would fight on.

I certainly wanted her to survive. While she was in office, there would be no humiliating U-turn away from the poll tax. I had no doubt that if the Conservatives fought the next election without abandoning what Thatcher coyly called the Community Charge, Labour would win. Unfortunately, most of the cabinet had come to the same conclusion. But on the morning of her departure I knew nothing about the events of the previous night - Kenneth Clarke, brutally frank, and Michael Portillo, like the Roman centurion at Pompeii, faithful unto death.

One detail about that historic event I dis­covered only four years later. I was on Brian Walden's Sunday ITV show on the weekend that the second volume of Thatcher's biography was sent to reviewers. In the hope of cheap publicity, the publisher arranged for a security company to deliver embargoed copies to Brian and me at the studio. As soon as we had posed for suitable pictures, we looked for our own names in the index. Mine did not appear; Brian was mentioned twice. Alan Clark, another guest on the show, asked if there was any reference to him. Brian found one and obligingly read it to the assembled company. It was a description of Clark's intervention on resignation night. The biography compared it to the porter's scene in Macbeth. "What does it mean?" Clark asked. Brian told him. "It means you were pissed." Thatcher's most devoted admirer stumbled from the room muttering about ingratitude.

I cannot recall a serious discussion with Neil Kinnock about which candidate we hoped would become the new Tory leader. We both knew instinctively - or thought we knew - what would be best for the Labour Party. Our fear was that Michael Heseltine would win and, after announcing the demise of the poll tax, call and win an immediate general election on the pretext of "needing a democratic mandate". Neither of us thought that Douglas Hurd had a chance - though I had no doubt that he was by far the most able of the contenders.

We wanted John Major. So, it seems, did Thatcher. At a Tory soirée after the 1997 defeat, she was so critical of her successor that Hurd could not resist reminding her that Major had once enjoyed her backing. She replied, "But it was such a poor field." I remain of the view that Neil and I were right. Whatever the reason for the Conservatives' fourth consecutive election victory in 1992, it was not because of the brilliance of their leader.

By the time that Major succeeded Thatcher, Labour had already returned to the mainstream of politics. Militant was an unhappy memory and four policies that more or less guaranteed defeat had been removed from the party programme. Labour no longer supported unilateral nuclear disarmament. Membership of the European Union was accepted by virtually all the party, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. It was agreed that renationalisation was - desirable or not - largely impossible. The trade unions, though still regarded as Labour's paymasters, no longer dictated industrial policy.

The shadow employment secretary, Tony Blair, had courageously and correctly endorsed the Brussels directive that simultaneously outlawed the closed shop and made trade union membership a statutory right. The party had confirmed its moderation by inflicting a crushing defeat on Tony Benn and Eric Heffer when they challenged Neil and me.

Thatcher inhibited rather than stimulated those necessary changes. The old left denounced every reform as "pandering to Thatcherism" - as well as presaging mass defections to the SDP. And the mistakes that we made in confronting the hard-edged Conservatism that Thatcher represented were the result not just of our horror at the suffering her policies caused, but of the fear that we would be accused of pandering to the prejudices that they exploited. Our responses were often too angry and frequently insufficiently clinical. We regularly misunderstood the attitude of the British people to Thatcherism's unquestioning enthusiasm for ruthless individualism.

During the 1983 general election campaign Thatcher was asked why, when she needed an operation on her hand, she had chosen private treatment over the National Health Service. She replied, without doubt or hesitation, that she wanted treatment at the time of her choice and in the place of her choice. That answer seemed to me both morally objectionable and certain to offend the thousands of people who were languishing on treatment waiting lists. My assumption about the public's attitude was wrong. Opinion polls confirmed that the general feeling was that anyone who could afford superior treatment was entitled to buy it. We found it hard to accept that.

In a credible sense, Margaret Thatcher rep­resented the spirit of the age. She stood for more than the belief that the collective solutions - the state initiating improvements in welfare and economic performance - had failed. She seemed to be a cleansing wind that would blow away the prejudices and vested interests of all the old establishments, hereditary grandees no less than trade union barons. Perversely, she represented change in a society that longed for something new. Labour was the ancien régime.

Rightly or wrongly, before Tony Blair we responded to all that Thatcher stood for by rejecting it outright. That is why the founding fathers of New Labour were unenthusiastic about John Smith's leadership. Blair would not have gone against the grain of public opinion. His detachment from social-democratic values became an electoral asset when he became the leader of a social-democratic party. He was able to judge each policy against the criterion of its public appeal. His standard reply to criticism was not that he had made the right choice, but that to choose the alternative was to risk defeat.

Blair himself was undoubtedly sympathetic to the precepts of Thatcherism - the view that allowing individuals to "get on", without much concern for the effect on other people, was the obligation of the free society. But hundreds of Labour Party members who supported his leadership rejected that view. To them, he was the only knight who could slay the once-indomitable dragon. It was the fear of continual failure, not conversion to crypto-Thatcherism, that encouraged Labour to follow Blair from a position on the moderate left on to the centre ground. The idea that Labour wins only when it is not Labour still haunts the party.

Joseph Chamberlain said that great politicians "changed the weather". I doubt that it was either Margaret Thatcher's dominant personality or distinctive philosophy that converted Britain to the belief that the old consensus - welfare and government intervention - had failed. Britain believed that before she won the 1979 election. Indeed, it was the reason for her victory. But she articulated the zeitgeist with such vigour that the idea survives her premiership by two decades. Thanks to her, ideas that most of the population instinctively believed, but feared to admit, became respectable. They still are and will remain so until their popularity is first accepted and then challenged.

The defining principle of Thatcher's economic philosophy - the efficacy of the market, as a guarantee of competitive efficiency and as a method of determining the allocation of resources and patterns of remuneration - was adopted by the Blair government, not as a philosophical truth, but as the common sense that any plain man would recognise. When Blair worked for me in Labour's front-bench Treasury team, his outstanding characteristics were all-round ability, undisguised contempt for a political vocation that was not focused on winning power and impatience with what he called ideology. At best, he believed in something called the common good, with which men and women of public spirit and integrity could identify without recourse to philosophy. The idea that he was attracted by Thatcherite theories is absurd. He prided himself on having put theory aside. He instinctively and independently came to a Thatcherite conclusion.

From time to time, Blair cast about for a coherent concept that would give a spurious cohesion to his unbridled pragmatism. In the end, he briefly found it in the "Third Way", as interpreted by Anthony Giddens, who, in 1992, boldly asserted: "Many on the more traditional left would accept the view that the left is defined by its concerns with the dangers of the market, whose excesses need to be reined back by the state. Today the idea has become archaic." Blair instinctively agreed, and began to talk in Giddens's language, because the Third Way seemed an idea that would help to define him by how he differed from the popular perception of the party he led, and would contribute to Labour's election victory.

The lessons that Blair learned from Thatcher were more personal than philosophical. One was the importance of party leaders making clear that they had imposed their will on their followers. Blair, wrote Roy Jenkins, "climbed up the outside of the Labour Party". Espousing the market had the same effect as rewriting Clause Four of the 1918 constitution - the intentionally unintelligible replacing the inherently unachievable. It demonstrated that the Labour leader had created a new party in his own image.

One other characteristic united the Blair and Thatcher premierships. Both were blessed by generally supine cabinets. A distraught secretary of state told me - after an apparently agreed policy had been suddenly and arbitrarily vetoed by Downing Street - that it had not been discussed by colleagues because a re­quest for collective discussion was regarded as disloyalty. In both the Thatcher and the Blair administrations, men and women of talent and belief accepted, without much argument, policies with which they disagreed. In Labour's case it began at the very dawn of government. The cabinet, overwhelmingly in favour of shelving the Millennium Dome, was told that the prime minister had already agreed that it should go ahead. Nobody demurred.

Labour accepted Blair's domination because its members had not quite recovered from the fear that Labour would never form a government again. Until the promotion of the hand-reared Blairites - Alan Milburn, Patricia Hewitt, Tessa Jowell - most of the Blair cabinet despised Thatcher's view of society. But they were in awe of the personalised politics - the party leader as celebrity - that had made her the dominant figure of the 1980s. Blair seemed, indeed was, capable of holding the British people in equal thrall. Examine the commendations of his colleagues. John Prescott, extolling the new leader's virtues on the day he was elected, told the party not that he was the man with the right programme, but that he was the man the Tories feared. Blair was supposed to be the loss leader in Labour's supermarket. But, because of the strength of his personality, for ten years it hawked the Thatcherite merchandise that was his genuine stock-in-trade.

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92