The Spectator's Notes

Thatcher and Boris: the problems of downfall

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

Few leaders could be as different in character as Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson, but one can compare their predicaments when colleagues turned on them. Both had large parliamentary majorities and were never defeated in any election they led, yet both faced internal coups. In both cases, there were/are good reasons why colleagues were fed up with their leaders. What was true in Mrs Thatcher’s case, however, and may well apply in Boris’s if he does go, is that her political assassination caused remorse, and immense, lasting division. As John Major understood and Michael Heseltine did not foresee, remorseful MPs tend to turn on the chief assassin and favour, almost paradoxically, the successor candidate who seems loyal to the ousted leader. If that logic works this time, Rishi Sunak (and the less likely Sajid Javid) will find it hard to win. As for division, it will be said that it was very strange to evict a prime minister because of what he did or did not know about the predilections of a deputy chief whip, when the world order and the world economy are tottering and people face frightening inflation at home. They will also see a forced Johnson departure as confirmation that Remainers, whatever the voters decided, still have the power behind the scenes. Much trouble ahead.

Nick Robinson to the new Chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi, on Today on Wednesday: ‘I am asking you whether you told the truth and whether Boris Johnson told the truth and the simple answer is that you didn’t and he didn’t.’ Since he has the answers to all his own questions why does not Nick just interview himself?

Lara Prendergast’s enjoyable piece last week about how she did not go to a modern ‘sex party’ reminded me of a similar non-experience. In 1969, I was 12 and about to go to boarding school. My oldest friend, Dallas Manderson, was going to the same school at the same time. To help prepare me (Dallas had already boarded: I had not), Dallas’s parents kindly invited me to stay with the family in London. I do not remember what was said about boarding but I do recall, once we had been sent to our beds, that Dallas and I talked late into the night about what we would do if we were ever invited to one of the ‘drugs and sex parties’ for teenagers which were then being salaciously written up in the papers. Our unanimous and high-minded conclusion was that we would refuse the drugs. As for the sex, we were more evasive, dimly aware that this was supposed to depend on the interest of the girls present, and perfectly, though silently, certain that we were out of our depth. Well, we became teenagers and no invitation to a ‘drugs and sex party’ was ever forthcoming, although I expect I did later attend parties where those two items were, in fact though not in name, available. Lara’s article brought back to me that left-out feeling the 1960s gave many of us. Just as Philip Larkin was too old for the decade, we were too young. I wanted to get in touch with Dallas to see if he remembered our talk of more than half a century ago. But then I heard he had died a week earlier, aged 66. He had suffered for many years from premature Parkinson’s disease, bravely borne. Dallas was a sweet-natured and charming boy and man. I treasure this small moment of the two of us peering into the future together and not being able to see anything much at all.

On Saturday, our hunt puppy show was held. The distant, unimpeded view of the South Downs and the sea was perfectly clear in the unoppressive sun. One of the two judges, Lord Mancroft, made an interesting speech about how to tell a good hound. It immediately ‘fills the eye’, he said. It should not be square ‘like a four-poster bed’, but athletic and streamlined. The champion puppy the judges chose was called Lara. I fear that she, unlike her human namesake, will have no choice but to attend sex parties. I hope she produces many fine litters.

The fortune of the Moore bit of my family – such as it is (or rather, was) – was founded by my great-grandfather, Norman Moore, who began life as the sole child of an Irish single mother and ended up a distinguished doctor, a Victorian man of letters and a baronet. This year is the centenary of his death, so on Sunday my sister Charlotte invited all his descendants to a commemorative lunch at her house in Sussex, which was also his. Forty-five of us appeared. NM, as he was always known, had a gift for unlikely friendship. When he was 16 and working in a cotton mill, he travelled from Manchester to Walton Hall near Wakefield because he was a young ornithologist and Walton was the first wildlife park/nature reserve in the world. There NM met Walton’s squire and creator of the park, the explorer and eccentric Charles Waterton (the first man to bring curare, the paralysing agent used in operations, to Europe), and became his close friend. Waterton was 81 at the time. Three years later, NM was with him when he died. At the party, Charlotte produced an interesting object. It was the pillow made of wood on which Waterton always slept as a sort of penance because his wife had died in childbirth. NM had been given it by the squire’s son, Edmund. Charlotte related that Edmund had also offered him his father’s First Folio of Shakespeare. My great-grandfather nobly refused the book, since he felt it should remain in the family (they probably possessed it because a Waterton gets a one-line mention in Richard II, shortly after John of Gaunt’s great deathbed speech). In fact, it did not, because the scapegrace Edmund sold up everything. NM accepted the wooden pillow, however. It is typical of my family to eschew objects of great monetary value and prefer ones of sentimental value only, thus storing up treasure in heaven but not on earth. Blast them.

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