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Study notes

Margaret Thatcher: Thatcher's Cabinets

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel

When Thatcher came to power in 1979 her first Cabinet contained a mix of "Thatcherites" and "Wets". None were still there when Thatcher left power in 1990.

Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 echoing Saint Francis of Assisi, promising:

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.

Where there is error, may we bring truth.

Where there is doubt may we bring faith.

And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

However, Thatcher’s radical New Right agenda sought to rip up the post-war consensus that had dominated UK politics since the 1940s and, according to her fiercest critics, did little to bring about harmony or hope. However, she was certainly a transformative prime minister who changed the UK a great deal. Her ideas were based on a clear small-state ideology, but in fact her first Cabinet was not packed with “Thatcherites” (as New Right politicians would come to be known in the UK) and contained a number of “one nation” conservatives (those who were known to supporters of Mrs Thatcher as “wets”).

These politicians were actually rather combative and Thatcher’s early cabinet meetings could be fraught affairs as there was serious disagreement over government policy and even the government’s central ideology. Secretaries of State wanted to protect their departmental budgets from Thatcher’s desire for spending cuts. While she had some strong allies in the cabinet, such as Sir Keith Joseph, many of the “old guard” were quite hostile. Apparently, Jim Prior once declared “I don’t give a damn for sound money!” when Thatcher argued not to give teachers a pay rise. Thatcher asked if anyone did not support the government’s economic policy which was followed by an embarrassed silence. Relations became very strained around the time of the 1981 budget leading to a reshuffle in which Thatcher brought in more of her natural supporters, such as Nigel Lawson, Norman Tebbit and Cecil Parkinson, dismissing or marginalising some of the wets.

No member of the 1979 cabinet was in the Thatcher’s final cabinet at the point she resigned 1990, although one or two were there for nearly the whole time, most notably Geoffrey Howe, whose resignation as Deputy Prime Minister in 1990 is often seen as the moment that brought about the end of Thatcher’s premiership.

Even many of Thatcher’s key allies from the early 1980s left her cabinets, sometimes because of personal and political differences (such as Nigel Lawson) and sometimes because of personal circumstances (such as Norman Tebbit who left the government to look after his wife, who had been badly injured in an IRA bombing).

Other key figures through some of the Thatcher cabinets include Michael Heseltine (who became a key rival), Willie Whitelaw, Leon Brittan, Norman Lamont, Douglas Hurd and John Major (her eventual successor). It is sometimes noted that Margaret Thatcher did not use her role as the first female Prime Minister in the UK to promote many women. She had no women in any of her cabinets, although she did appoint a handful of female junior ministers, mostly from the House of Lords. It is worth noting that there were not a lot of female Conservative MPs to draw from in that era, although some were promoted by John Major, who had been MPs for some time, such as Virginia Bottomley and Gillian Shepherd.

Most reports suggest that Thatcher had a presidential style, dominating her Cabinet and very much engaging in prime ministerial government rather than cabinet government. This was certainly the impression given by sacked or resigning ministers as well as the picture in popular culture (for example the satirical show Spitting Image had a sketch where Thatcher was at dinner with her cabinet, ordered some meat and the waiter asked “what about the vegetables?” and she replied “they’ll have the same”.)

Thatcher had a strong ideological commitment to neo-liberal economics and neo-conservative foreign and domestic policy, which combined as what became known as the New Right and she increasingly enforced that vision through cabinet. While in her early cabinets there was that deep ideological divide between the New Right and One Nation Tories, her later cabinets were overwhelmingly New Right, but a new divide grew over the subject of the European Economic Community (what was to become the EU), with Thatcher becoming increasingly hostile to the organisation (despite having been a fervent “remainer” in the referendum of 1975) while many of her ministers remained committed to it. It was these clashes, particularly with Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe, that led to her leaving office earlier than she had intended.

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