Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography, Volume Two: Everything She Wants by Charles Moore – review

A few major revelations, some lapses into Tory triumphalism, and something still missing – an insider’s portrait of a prime minister in her pomp

Is Charles Moore a lucky biographer? Britain’s best-connected rightwing journalist has been working on his study of modern Britain’s most relentless rightwing politician for 18 years so far. He has published more than 1,700 pages, an intended two volumes have become an intended three, and he still has a quarter of a century of her workaholic life to go. With political biographies becoming shorter and scarcer in a country that increasingly dislikes politicians, this could be one of the last big commissions.

When, in 2013, the first instalment, Not for Turning, came out, shortly after Margaret Thatcher’s death, as she and Moore had agreed it would, it was helped by the political situation in Britain. The economy was struggling; the coalition was unpopular and it seemed possible that David Cameron’s days were numbered – the parallels were there with the often beleaguered first Thatcher premiership, which Moore’s book covered at length.

Now, with the Conservatives, unexpectedly, in sole command of the country once more, and gliding around their party conference this week with some of their old mid-80s confidence, Moore has produced his version of Thatcher’s life during exactly those years. The book begins in June 1982, a few days after Britain’s victory in the Falklands war, with her lecturing the UN’s general assembly on “peace with freedom and justice”. It ends with her winning her third successive general election, in 1987 – “I must have an 80 majority,” she tells David Young, one of her Tory favourites, “I must have it” – with a majority of 102. Leftwing readers of a sensitive disposition may want to look away now.

Yet writing about a period of dominance – “the zenith of her power”, Moore correctly calls it – has its challenges. First, this is the Thatcher phase everyone already knows about: beating the miners, handbagging her way unstoppably through international summits, browbeating even her most senior colleagues. “It was important to invoke her name very sparingly in Whitehall,” recalls an aide indirectly and tellingly quoted by Moore. “People would respond excessively to whatever they thought might be her will.” Moore evokes this power and fear vividly; but readers familiar with the longer arc of her story may still be left feeling that the more vulnerable, threatened Thatcher of the early 80s and early 90s is a more promising, less worked-over subject. Even the memorable cover image of Everything She Wants, a photo of her standing, arms proudly outstretched, wearing a Tory-blue dress and a triumphant smile, in front of a huge industrial door painted with the union jack, has been used before, in almost identical form, on the front of another book about her, Thatcher’s Britain (2009) by Richard Vinen.

Sometimes the storytelling in Everything She Wants also lacks shape and tension. It starts a bit slowly and underwhelmingly, weighed down by detail and the apparent assumption that readers have already been drawn in by volume one and require little further seduction. On page 77 we learn that “In parliamentary affairs [in mid-1983], Mrs Thatcher faced two thorny difficulties – the speakership and MPs’ pay”. One of the aims of Moore’s biographical epic is to be a journal of record; and one of the strengths of both volumes is that he has used his unique access to Tory Britain, from interviews with long-silent witnesses to caches of the most private papers, to build up an at times awesomely thorough and authoritative portrait. But there are stretches when all but Westminster anoraks will want more selectivity and shorter paragraphs.

Moore divides his chosen period roughly into three. There is Thatcher’s post-Falklands surge from late 1982 to early 1984, including the start of her great privatisation gamble and her general election landslide in 1983; then a more turbulent stage from mid-1984 to early 1986, including the miners’ strike and her attempted assassination in Brighton by the IRA; and finally, a renewed supremacy from mid-1986 to mid-1987, which brought a feverishly growing economy and the deregulatory Big Bang in the City of London.

This boom-and-bust narrative is presented as a new interpretation of the high-Thatcher era. “Only by writing this book did I come to understand just how insecure Mrs Thatcher’s position often felt in these years – not least to her.” It’s an important insight, and gives the book a welcome underlying drama. But it’s not new. The idea that her ascendancy was both dynamic and brittle, regularly punctuated by crises – real, imagined and deliberately confected – has been around since at least the 1993 BBC documentary series about her, The Downing Street Years. Thatcher was a melodramatic politician, who often needed crises to energise her.

And was she absolutely honest about these crises, even in private? If you read her most personal writings, such as her secretly composed 1983 memoir of the Falklands war, recently released after years of anticipation by historians, you often just find more informally worded versions of the same hopes and fears she expressed in public. For all the quality and quantity of Moore’s sources, and the expertise with which he sifts and arranges them, you wonder if he has got to the bottom of her – or whether anyone ever will, or ever has, including Thatcher herself.

Everything She Wants does have some revelatory moments. The American invasion of the tiny Commonwealth island of Grenada in 1983, against her explicit wishes, is given almost 20 pages. Moore uses them beautifully to rescue important themes from obscurity: that the US president, Ronald Reagan, while an ideological and personal soulmate of Thatcher’s, was also an unreliable ally; and that the Iron Lady, for all her warlike rhetoric, could be surprisingly inept in military matters. The amphibious attack on Grenada was similar in its execution and buildup to the Argentinian seizure of the Falklands 18 months earlier, but it still surprised and threw her.

The vicious internal Tory battle in 1985-6 over rival foreign bids for an ailing British military helicopter manufacturer, Westland, was another episode in which events slipped dangerously out of her control. Moore intricately reconstructs the cabinet and Whitehall row that the confrontational, stubborn prime minister could not resist escalating. It almost left her fatally exposed in the House of Commons (until the Labour leader Neil Kinnock infamously failed to ask the right questions), and culminated instead with the resignation of two key ministers, Leon Brittan and Michael Heseltine.

By 1986 Heseltine was one of an increasing number of Tories who had his eyes on Thatcher’s job – as her tenure grew longer and she became more messianic and difficult to work with. In order to damage him, Thatcher and her most sharp-toothed Downing Street operatives were involved in the concoction and illicit leaking of a confidential letter from the solicitor-general that was critical of Heseltine’s conduct in the Westland row. Most of this has always been denied – not least by Thatcher at the time, in the Commons – but Moore confirms it all by talking to the source of the leak, a steely Thatcherite civil servant called Colette Bowe, who, for almost 30 years, had “put all her personal records of the saga in a bank vault and said nothing to anyone”. Had Bowe been less discreet in 1986, he concludes, “she could probably have brought the government down”.

I wonder. Here and elsewhere, such as in his account of the miners’ strike, it feels as if Moore is straining to portray Thatcher as on the edge politically, yet he has already presented hundreds of pages of evidence of her near-impregnability. In Britain, governments with three-figure majorities can survive a lot of crises.

As in the first volume, Moore’s writing is mostly restrained and cool, a nice corrective to Thatcher’s overheated personality. But when he allows himself to be more subjective, his language can be a touch Tory-triumphalist. At an EEC meeting in 1984, one of many international summits and negotiations in the book as Thatcher and Britain turn more and more confidently outwards, “she was the superior of all her counterparts in knowledge, argumentative skill, force of personality and perhaps even in raw intelligence”.

There are few leftwingers among Moore’s hundreds of interviewees. He always quotes them on what the left got wrong during the mid-80s, rather than on what they got right, such as the vision of a diverse Britain successfully promoted, to Thatcher’s incomprehension and fury, by the Greater London Council, which she abolished in 1986. Similarly, a chapter about cultural responses to Thatcher is so keen to castigate a handful of liberal and leftwing 80s writers for their snobbery towards her – even non-Tory readers may find themselves a little on Moore’s side here – that it misses the way that Thatcherite ideas gradually seeped into pop culture. My Beautiful Laundrette, Hanif Kureishi’s 1985 film about entrepreneurs, is misinterpreted by Moore as a pure anti-Thatcher polemic. The chapter also neglects to mention the most powerful cultural response of all: the Thatcher worship of the rightwing press.

It is unrealistic to expect an authorised biography of such a tribal figure to be even-handed. For most Conservatives, Moore’s monumental books will be thrilling – the definitive explanation of the strange person who most shaped modern Britain. For the rest of us, the wait goes on.

• Andy Beckett’s most recent book is Promised You a Miracle: UK80-82. To order a copy of Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography Volume Two for £24 (RRP £30), go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.


Andy Beckett

The GuardianTramp

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