The Fall of Thatcher - what Butler saw
Perspective is naturally governed by where one is standing. I’ve previously interviewed Barry Potter, Dominic Morris and Caroline Slocock about the fall of Margaret Thatcher as part of an endeavour to talk to all of those in the cabinet room when Margaret Thatcher resigned. They were private secretaries to the Prime Minister – who worked with her day in day out. Naturally they built up tight bonds of loyalty. Slocock sobbed when she quit. Morris and Potter even helped loyal MPs draft suggestions for how to keep the Iron Lady in power. It made her defenestration particularly painful.
Robin Butler, now Lord Butler of Brockwell, was the cabinet secretary when Thatcher fell, in charge of UK government PLC. He had been her private secretary – a role during which they became close. But in his new position he had responsibilities beyond the Prime Minister herself and this coloured his responses at the time. He was acutely concerned that Thatcher and her key lieutenants Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe have fallen out. He can see the end is coming. And in the final hours he anticipates her resignation – writing a tribute to be read at cabinet, selecting the Lord Chancellor James Mackay to deliver it because he has no ambitions to succeed her. His focus is to avoid a “hiatus” at the top.
But Lord Butler is no heartless bureaucrat simply concentrating on the job in hand. Her resignation is “traumatic” and “tragic.”. Even someone who saw several prime ministers come and go admits there is a terrible sadness to a fall. Thatcher’s gender he feels made it all the sadder.
His analysis as to the reasons for her sudden exit centres on personality – not policy. Thatcher had become increasingly hard to work with – changing noticeably by the end from the Prime Minister who once loved nothing better than a late night debate – he sighs fondly at this point. She became “dictatorial” – but contrastingly delegated more and more to Bernard Ingham and Charles Powell, a move which may have increased her isolation. And like the other interviewees, Lord Butler drags another cabinet meeting to the heart of the narrative. The moment she unfairly berated a recently demoted Howe was “unwise” – mandarin for bloody stupid. Howe promptly quit and bought her down with him. The first cabinet meeting without Margaret Thatcher reminded him of The Prisoner’s Chorus in Fidelio - as long cowed ministers slowly realise they can speak freely.
Lord Butler also provides unforgettable vignettes. The cabinet meeting where she resigned, crying along with several of her colleagues, then proceeds to other business. Next on the agenda was energy privatisation. There is no starker symbol of the ship of state sailing on – and of a different age where emotion is quickly reined in. After resigning Thatcher proceeds to tell the cabinet to stop Michael Heseltine in the coming leadership race – a breach of protocol Butler chose to effectively omit in the cabinet minutes. The day she resigns Thatcher is due to attend an event at the Albert Hall to mark Winston Churchill’s arrival at Harrow. Imagine David Cameron daring to attend such a celebration. She has to pull out but Dennis and Lord Butler still go, and on the way back her husband laments how he wishes she’d quit while still ahead. And at a leaving party the wound of losing power is laid bare. Lord Butler presents her with a pass to the cabinet office to assist in the writing her memoirs. She is clearly insulted to be considered as someone needing clearance.
We speak just as Lord Butler is preparing a speech for the house of Lords on Brexit. It’s impossible not to come away impressed by the resilience of civil service and the brilliant fashion it keeps the country running through almost unimaginable political drama. As in 1990 – he is still thinking ahead, off to debate the latest great earthquake, Britain’s departure from the European Union. 28 years ago when he and his colleagues kept the country running. His successors will today be doing the same as the latest game of thrones unfurls.