'Untested' Major lacked intellectual vision, Thatcher writes in memoirs

October 11, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

LONDON -- Official extracts from former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's long-awaited memoirs were published yesterday, painting an unflattering view of her successor, John Major, and her Cabinet ministers.

Lady Thatcher did not groom Mr. Major as her successor, according to the Sunday Times account of her book, "The Downing Street Years," which is due to be published Oct. 18.

"He was relatively untested and his tendency to accept the conventional wisdom had given me pause for thought," she wrote. "He is unexcited by the sort of concepts which I saw as central to politics."

Although she believed "given time he might grow in stature," Lady Thatcher was, and remains, reserved about Mr. Major's approach to plans for European economic and monetary unity.

"It was already clear that he was thinking in terms of compromises which would not be acceptable to me and that intellectually he was drifting with the tide," she wrote.

She had to turn to "others more at ease with large ideas and strategies," she says in her book.

Despite her misgivings, Lady Thatcher felt it was duty to ensure that Mr. Major succeeded her when she stepped down in 1990. She felt it vitally important to head off Michael Heseltine, a dedicated European from the Conservative Party's "left." He's now the environment minister in Mr. Major's cabinet.

The excerpts printed by the Sunday Times, a supporter of Lady Thatcher's Conservative Party, came after the Daily Mirror, a tabloid with a tilt toward the left, published "purloined" excerpts of the closely guarded book.

Those snippets in which Lady Thatcher purportedly thought Mr. Major was an intellectual wimp disrupted the Conservative Party's annual general conference last week.

The Tories had hoped the meeting would be a show of unity for Mr. Major. Instead, they spent the week trying to refute the accounts of the Thatcher years in the Daily Mirror.

But by the end of the week Lady Thatcher and Mr. Major had shaken hands -- albeit with the warmth of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Party divisions were papered over if not solved.

Mr. Major gave a closing speech reasserting "Conservative values" that satisfied the Thatcherite right. Lady Thatcher pledged her support and said that she perceived Mr. Major's "back to traditional values" speech as a shift in her direction.

The Tories left their conference restlessly united behind Mr. Major. His popularity rating is below that of Neville Chamberlain's at the start of World War II.

In the Sunday Times' excerpts, Lady Thatcher reserves her most vitriolic comments for her chancellor of the exchequer, Nigel Lawson, and Geoffrey Howe, her foreign secretary.

She describes "Lawson's folly" and "Howe's malice" in the Sunday Times excerpt.

"Nigel had pursued a personal economic policy without reference to the rest of the government," she wrote. "How could I possibly trust him again?"

Mr. Howe resigned from his post after several disagreements over policy. Lady Thatcher accused him of "bile and treachery" in his resignation speech to Parliament.

The speech opened Lady Thatcher to a challenge by Mr. Heseltine for party leadership, but Mr. Major subsequently was elected to head the Conservatives.

"The very brilliance with which he [Mr. Howe] wielded the dagger insured that the character he assassinated was in the end his own," Lady Thatcher wrote.

The Sunday Times political editor, Michael Jones, noted that Lady Thatcher did not describe the prime minister as "small-minded, politically naive and an intellectual lightweight" -- "as the Daily Mirror falsely reported last week."

Extraordinary security measures were taken to prevent leaks. They ranged from stop-and-search powers for guards, badges for printing plant workers and 24-hour surveillance of the finished books.

Similar precautions were undertaken in the United States. But with copies being transferred to nine countries from Holland to Japan, problems in ensuring secrecy appeared insurmountable.

About 850,000 copies will go on sale next Monday.

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