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Margaret Thatcher, Parliamentarian - a lesson in the power of argument

By Paul Goodman
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The only political event in town today is the Commons's special session for tributes to Margaret Thatcher.  It presents a tricky challenge for Ed Miliband, in terms of both of what he says and how his party behaves - though I suspect that a lot of Labour MPs, like John Healey, will simply boycott the proceedings.

Whatever happens, this is a good moment to reflect on Thatcher as a Parliamentarian.  First as a teenager, and then later as a Conservative student activist, I grew up in the age before Parliament was televised - and, unlike William Hague, I didn't read Hansard.  So how am I in a position to make an assessment at all?

For two reasons.  First, because MPs voted that Parliament should be televised during her Premiership, and she sung one or two of her greatest hits in the Chamber.  One of them is in the video above: No, No, No! (Other great Thatcher songs were: The Lady's Not For Turning, Rejoice At That News, The Enemy Within, and Treachery With A Smile On Its Face.)

The second is that the pre-televisation age was also the great age of the sketchwriters - one of whom, Edward Pearce, I saw a bit of when I first wanted to enter the Commons, and the other of whom, Frank Johnson, I saw a lot of when I actually did.  The latter was perhaps the very greatest of all.

They gave a marvellous sense of her strengths and weaknesses.  (Extracts from two of Frank's sketches are online in a piece by his widow, Virginia Fraser, and though neither are Parliamentary I can't help linking to them.)  And although she wasn't a William Hague-type Commons natural - very, very few people are - she learned her trade, and can herself be learnt from, as follows:

  • Know your stuff.  Thatcher's immaculate way of dressing was mirrored by her immaculate preparation for debate.  I can't remember ever seeing her being caught out in the Commons on a point of fact, or reading about such an event taking place.  And she could use her preparation with devastating effect.  She once flattened Tony Benn - on the basis of information dug up by Bernard Ingham, her press secretary, who used to work for Benn - about the number of coal mines closed under Labour.
  • Jokes are secondary.  If they come off, they've an imitiable way of weakening your opponent, but they're no substitute for the grinding, wearing power of argument. Thatcher was famouly joke-blind (though very swift in coming back at opponents).  But above all, she was always making an argument.  One of her opponents as Leader of the Opposition, Michael Foot, was a great Parliamentarian - far greater than she was.  It didn't matter when they came face to face.  She won, he lost, and she won because she won the argument.
  • Stay lucky.  Mention of Foot is a reminder that, on the whole, she got luckier with her opponents as time passed.  Although her 1975 leadership election victory was aided by a Commons mauling of Denis Healey ("Some Chancellors are micro-economic, some Chancellors are fiscal. This one is just plain cheap"), she never got the better of Harold Wilson, and Jim Callaghan frequently got the better of her.  But after Callaghan she had first Foot and then Neil Kinnock.  Enough said.
  • Keep going.  She became a front bencher as early as 1961, 20 months after her entry to the Commons, and stayed one for the best part of 30 years.  By the end of that time, she had been through a major strike, a war, and an assassination attempt - and, in a far more minor key, Westland (perhaps the only time she was badly exposed in Parliament, but Kinnock let her off the hook).  She was the ultimate proof that practice makes perfect, and that great Parliamentarians can be made as well as born.


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