Ben Lowry: For all the talk of Alpha males, few men are as tough as Thatcher was

Margaret Thatcher, seen above in 1986, the year after she faced down her most senior colleagues over the ERM
Margaret Thatcher, seen above in 1986, the year after she faced down her most senior colleagues over the ERM

In yesterday’s News Letter, we reported on a remarkable meeting in November 1985 that demonstrated Margaret Thatcher’s fearsome leadership skills.

The then prime minister was, as predicted by one of her aides, ‘ambushed’ by her most senior colleagues, who wanted her to join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).

Present at the meeting were her chancellor, Nigel Lawson, foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, the leader of the House, John Biffen, the trade secretary, Leon Brittan, and the governor of the Bank of England, Robin Leigh-Pemberton, all of whom wanted her to join the ERM.

But not only that, but two of her key lieutenants were present, and also in favour of joining: William Whitelaw, who was a loyal establishment grandee, and Norman Tebbit, perhaps Mrs Thatcher’s strongest ideological ally in the cabinet.

She stood out against this immense pressure, and said that she had not been convinced of the arguments for joining the ERM, which was the precursor to the single currency. This was a display of astonishing fortitude.

People talk about the dominance of men in boardrooms, but there are very few male leaders indeed who would withstand such pressure.

Apply a similar situation to almost any line of work and try to imagine the pressure to accede to the unanimous feeling in such a meeting:

Imagine a headmaster confronted by the board of governors, by his vice master, the leading teaching staff, by a key representative of the school’s local authority and a senior member of the education department, all making explicit their belief that the headmaster was following the wrong course on a central aspect of school policy.

Or imagine a football coach of a leading team being confronted by his club chairman, his assistant, all his top players, the key investor in the club and so on, all in agreement that a central aspect of his management policy was flawed.

And then imagine the headmaster or the football coach dismissing the unanimous approach.

Almost any political or business or professional or sporting leader would have felt that they had to crumble, however reluctantly, if they were to survive in post.

Mrs Thatcher not only saw off that meeting, she went on to win the 1987 general election, and saw off the later resignation of Nigel Lawson on the same issue, ERM membership, four years later.

She survived in office until the end of 1990, when Geoffrey Howe resigned, also over Europe.

By then, Mrs Thatcher had been persuaded by her chancellor John Major to enter ERM, but she had held out for the best part of five years against the move.

As is famous, membership ended disastrously in the autumn of 1992. John Major had secured re-election by then so the Tories held on in office until 1997 but never recovered electorally.

Nigel Lawson, who has since become Lord Lawson, is not only now a bitter critic of the successor to the ERM, the euro, he has become such a eurosceptic that he became one of the leading voices in favour of Brexit in the recent referendum.

Mrs Thatcher’s scepticism and strength was vindicated.

You can think what you want about Mrs T, and millions of people still despise her and her legacy, but such forceful leadership is very rare indeed.

For it to be combined with competence is rarer still.

There has been no indication yet that Theresa May is in the same league as Margaret Thatcher, which is not a damning reflection on Mrs May but rather a reflection of the fact that Mrs Thatcher was so unusual.

But Mrs May’s cabinet reshuffle was notably brutal.

Again, for all the talk about male control of politics, there are very few male prime ministers who have shown such ruthlessness in reshuffles.

Northern Ireland has plenty of female political leaders now: five of the Stormont ministers are women, including of course our first minister Arlene Foster.

Michelle O’Neill at health now has the chance to show some steel and to withstand external and internal pressure. The expert panel has reported back on NHS provision in Northern Ireland.

Ms O’Neill said: “There is a strong appetite for reform and there now seems to be a clear window of opportunity to drive transformation forward.”

These are the kind of words that we need to hear. For 15 years, one report after another has concluded that the Province has too many hospitals. Yet populist politicians of all parties have refused to explain to the public that it is better to have a small number of first rate hospitals than a large number of inefficient hospitals. The latter have, among other problems, higher death rates.

Yet whenever so much as a ward closure is mooted, there is uproar, backed by condemnatory statements from representatives of all the main parties.

This is a serious political failing – squandering millions of pounds a year on inefficient NHS provision at a time of indebtedness.

If the DUP-Sinn Fein led executive cannot now press ahead with reform, and explain to the public why it is necessary, after an election in which their dominance has been confirmed for five years, they never will.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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