John Major slams Maggie Thatcher in upcoming memoir

Tory codgers slug it out in battle of the books.

Published October 5, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

As Britain's Conservative Party hobbles toward the millennium, its leading members seem to be focused on its past. In a skirmish of memoirs, a spate of party seniors have set out to settle the score with rivals -- and doubtless to spread around some of the blame for one of the most humiliating defeats in post-World War II electoral history.

Former chancellor of the exchequer Lord Norman Lamont -- seeking, perhaps, to preempt some of the bad press that his old boss and old foe, John Major, is sending his way -- publishes his memoir, "Norman Lamont: In Office," Thursday with Little, Brown. On Oct. 11, HarperCollins brings out Major's much anticipated "John Major: The Autobiography." According to London's Daily Telegraph, Tory stalwart Michael Heseltine also has a memoir in the works.

Major, the prime minister under whose watch Tony Blair's Labor Party finally brought the Tories to their knees in 1997, after 18 years in power, published an excerpt of his memoir in the London Sunday Times this week excoriating his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. "In office Mr. Major was regarded as a grey man, with language to match," London's Independent observed upon the appearance of the excerpt. "His memoirs at times read like a racy novel."

Though Major writes that he supported the Iron Lady during the late '80s, he found that he was:

uneasy at her increasingly autocratic approach. Her warrior characteristics were profoundly un-Conservative. In private she was capable of changing her mind with bewildering speed until she had worked up her public opinion. Too often she conducted government by gut instinct: conviction, some said admiringly but at any rate without mature, detached examination of the issues.

And he goes on to say that after 10 years in office, Thatcher had lost "the knack of keeping the two sides of her personality bolted together." A Thatcher spokesperson told the Independent that the former P.M. had not read the excerpt.

Major himself takes a few blows from Lamont, who alleges that Major kept him waiting outside the cabinet room on Sept. 16, 1992, or "Black Wednesday," the day on which the pound was forced out of Europe's exchange rate mechanism (ERM) because of fiscal mismanagement; he refers to rumors that Major was having some kind of personal crisis. (Major's allies dispute the account.) More generally, Lamont accuses Major of dithering and incompetence.

In terms of morale, the battle couldn't come at a worse time for the current Tory leader, William Hague, whose struggling party's annual summit convenes this week in Blackpool. As Hague tries to drag his charges out of the doldrums (a recent poll suggested that a mere 13 percent of the electorate foresees the Tories regaining power in the next election), Thatcher has found herself denying rumors that her nickname for him is "Wee Willie."

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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