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Thatcher: A good female boss?

“I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime.” Margaret Thatcher 1973.

The recent death of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, thrust the matter of women bosses into the spotlight. It is a given that you can get good or bad bosses of either sex, and their ability has little to do with their chromosomes, but rather the way they behave. Many commentators have suggested that if more women ran banking, we would not have had to endure the recent financial collapse and that their generally more empathetic nature can make the workplace a more nurturing and positive place to work.

Back to Mrs Thatcher. Her recent biography reveals that she was condemned by one of her closest advisers, within two years of arriving at No 10, for bullying weaker colleagues and abusing her seniority.

In a searing memo, which foresaw many of the weaknesses which led to her downfall nearly a decade later, Sir John Hoskyns warned Thatcher that she was breaking every rule of man-management and had created an “unhappy ship” which threatened her position.

The first volume of Thatcher’s authorised biography was written by Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph.

Thatcher’s first chancellor was Geoffrey Howe, who would eventually trigger her downfall in 1990 and she thought of sacking him as early as 1981. John Kerr, Howe’s private secretary at the time, said she “was quite full of whiskey” during a row in the run-up to the autumn statement of 1981. She doesn’t sound particularly nurturing.

Some say that in order to succeed, women need to emulate men and work twice as hard as them. This certainly seems to have been the case with Maggie, who famously survived on five hours’ sleep a night.

The Hoskyns memo is worth looking at in full; headed, Your Personal Survival, it says: “Your own credibility and prestige are draining away very fast. You break every rule of good man-management. You bully your weaker colleagues. You criticise colleagues in front of each other and in front of their officials. They can’t answer back without appearing disrespectful, in front of others, to a woman and to a prime minister. You abuse that situation. You give little praise or credit, and you are too ready to blame others when things go wrong.” She certainly doesn’t sound like a good example for other women.

Hoskyns said his memo failed because Thatcher “hissed” at him and said nobody had written to her as prime minister in such a hostile manner. Hoskyns said the memo highlighted how, as early as 1981, “the seeds of her downfall were being sown”.

The biography covers the 1982 invasion of the Falklands by Argentina, which led to the resignation of Lord Carrington as foreign secretary, after the wife of Lord Home, the former prime minister, told him her husband would have resigned. Moore tells a story from Sir Clive Whitmore, Thatcher’s private secretary.

Moore writes: “As for Carrington, he had a genuine respect and affection for Mrs Thatcher, but he was also driven mad by what he saw as her stubbornness and lack of realism. One day, climbing the stairs to her study, he turned to Clive Whitmore and said: ‘Clive, if I have any more trouble with this fucking stupid, petit bourgeois woman, I’m going to go.’”

Thatcher appears to have been a micro-managing, autocratic leader, with extremely poor man-management skills, but she did inspire a surprising amount of lust in her followers.

According to Moore, some, “harboured a romantic devotion which teetered on the edge of the sexual”. Apparently, Sir Hector (later Lord) Laing, the chairman of United Biscuits, would send her notes which he requested be placed under her pillow. Brian Walden, the former MP turned television interviewer, reported Lord Owen as saying : “The whiff of that perfume, the sweet smell of whiskey. By God Brian, she’s appealing beyond belief.”

As for that old fox, Alan Clark, he once said to her biographer: “I don’t want actual penetration. Just a massive snog.” It is quite disturbing to think of Thatcher having any feminine wiles and the thorny issue of the role of sexual charisma in leadership will have to wait for another day.

Nigel Phillips

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