How Mrs Thatcher got things done


           It is often easier to get into office than to be in power. The kind of politicians who are good at easing and charming their way into an official position, sometimes cannot remember why they wanted to be there by the time they make it. Some may never have had anything particular in mind to do. Some are happy to adopt whatever agenda the civil service, the EU or a past Minister left lying around for them. Some are soon hit by an unexpected crisis. Free of ideology in such circumstances can mean bereft of an  anchor or set of principles by  which to steer and judge.

         This was not true of Margaret Thatcher. She always knew there was a country to save and dragons to slay. She did not rest content with being the first woman Prime MInister, or feel that the state of the UK in 1979 was broadly acceptable, requiring just a little tinkering and bit of management. She wanted to create industrial peace in place of the endless strife. She wanted many more people to enjoy what had been the privileges of the few. She wanted to end inflation and make saving and investing worthwhile.  She wanted to tackle the communist threat from without. She was not radical when it came to the NHS or comprehensive schools or even welfare.

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† My predecessor(but one) ¬†at the Policy Unit, John Hoskyns, ran a small unit of three people. He specialised in the Union issue and helped her with the first important ¬†steps towards Trade Union reform. He was often at variance with the official civil service and found getting into other matters than the central economic reform difficult. Taking over from Ferdy Mount, I¬†inherited and recruited ¬†a unit of ten people, with a remit to engage¬† with all policy areas with the exception of foreign affairs, and intelligence. The Prime Minister for her second Parliament in office, wanted better back up and analysis from a home team. I was careful to position and run ¬†the unit as a civil service unit, with two official civil servants,¬†two former¬†Political Advisers, one former journalist, ¬†¬†three seconded business people, one person directly recruited from ¬†from business, ¬†and one recently retired senior accountant. We did not attend political meetings, nor brief the media (save for an occasional¬† background brief on big issues which I did for the lobby at Bernard Ingham’s request)

         I set about studying what the Prime Minister needed. Often she was called upon as a judge, to adjudicate between departments in dispute over an issue. In such a role she needed help in assessing the strength of the various cases put in, in establishing lines of questioning to probe the differences, and suggested criteria or principles for coming to a judgement.  Quite simply at times she needed a translation and precis service, to turn hundreds of pages of leaden civil service prose into something clear and focused for a busy woman.

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† More importantly, I wanted¬†to help her ¬†to be strategic.¬†She did not need to ¬†intervene in dozens of issues where a Secrerary of State should¬†be free to make his own decisions. I wanted to help her¬† influence or decide the big calls that would shape the government. I wanted her to ensure progress and success where the governing politicians had promised to take action as a Cabinet or political group. I also wanted her to be able ¬†intervene to stop¬†some legislation and administration that lobby groups or¬†the civil service favoured which had no great cause behind it. All too often the so called apolitical ”¬†necessary” or “tidying up” ¬†bill sparked a bigger row than a very political measure, without delivering any great national gain.

        She agreed  that we would have a weekly bilateral meeting. I would send her a list of the main policies and actions being taken in each department and where they had got to. I would highlight major issues where the Manifesto had promised action or she had expressed a wish to do something. I would also list any bigger items planned by departments where I thought there could be political and financial cost for no obviously good reason.

           She liked this system. I always sought to arrange regular bilaterals for her with the  leading Secretaries of State, so they could be sure in private of any important view she held, and could tell her what they intended or explain why they were doing what they were doing. There had to be plenty of  private talking to ensure common aims and success.

           One of the nicest things she ever said after this system had been working for sometime was she welcomed the service the Policy Unit gave, because she could get so much more done.


  1. Kevin R. Lohse
    April 16, 2013

    “….The kind of politicians who are good at easing and charming their way into an official position, sometimes cannot remember why they wanted to be there by the time they make it”

    It’s a good thing that there are none of that sort in the Coalition, isn’t it?

    1. lifelogic
      April 16, 2013

      The majority do not seem to care why they are there. They just seem to like the status, salary, pension, expenses and potential for the next rung. That indeed is the problem.

      You say “He (John Hoskyns) was often at variance with the official civil service” – indeed they nearly always should be at varience – the interest of the civil service are so often directly against the interests of tax payers and voters. Politicians are the only (legal) protection they actually have from tax slavery and state muggings – a very poor protection it is too alas.

  2. Mike Stallard
    April 16, 2013

    What a fascinating insight into Mrs Thatcher’s attitude and success in facing the towering problems which faced the country!
    Nowadays we have problems too – in this order – the debt and deficit, the EU not being democratic in any English sense and having power over our own elected representatives, the reform of the Civil Service, the reform of the Welfare System.
    But are we really facing up to them like she did? It is no use getting the best advice if you don’t take it up like she did, is it.

    1. Vanessa
      April 16, 2013

      That system is now of no use. The EU does ALL the drafting, deciding, and implementing of our laws all the cabinet does is “rubber-stamp” them. Heaven knows how they fill their time nowadays ?

      I am still waiting to see cameron’s “backbone” when he calls the libdim’s bluff on a policy he wants their support on! I am so sure they will vote against it and bring the government down – not! They haven’t the balls to vote themselves out of a job never to see the inside of government again. Go on try cameron!

      1. uanime5
        April 16, 2013

        Given how the Lib Dems voted against boundary changes without bringing the Government down there’s little reason to believe that other such disagreements will bring the Government down.

        Early elections are unlikely to be called while the Conservatives and Lib Dems are trailing in the polls.

        1. Vanessa
          April 16, 2013

          I don’t think they actually had a vote on boundary changes. They told cameron they would not back him and he did not have the balls to call their bluff and put it to a vote.

          I may be wrong but don’t remember a vote. How many voted against?

  3. Peter Davies
    April 16, 2013

    Thanks for this insight, thought provoking. I particularly liked your first paragraph about charming ones way into a job then not knowing what to do.

    One weakness I sense is that the current govt lacks experience, particularly in having a PM (and Chancellor?) who has never held a ministerial position. Particularly as the coalition have simply taken labour policies, amended a few things around the edges and run with them.

  4. Andy Baxter
    April 16, 2013

    With all the media coverage of Margaret Thatcher over the last week or two (which I have digested voraciously!) it really does strike home how little advancement has really been made in politics over the last twenty years.

    Sure Blair/Brown had a few radical ideas of their own and I will leave it for others to decide whether or not they have led to our “advancement” or otherwise.

    It might be simplistic of me to say so but it does appear to be the EU that is now holding us back by preventing us from making our own decisions on several key areas.

    But Thatcher warned us about this not long before she was ousted, didn’t she?

    Knowing how Margaret Thatcher got things done is fascinating and I thank you for your insights, Mr Redwood but the key point is that she got things done and didn’t spend her time in power treading water.

    1. lifelogic
      April 17, 2013

      Indeed making vacuous speeches, making dishonest cast iron or IHT promises, going to focus group and PR meeting and thinking of the next PR distraction from real issues is not doing anything real at all. Nothing real changes as a result.

      Just start firing the state sector employees that do nothing useful or worse. There are no shortage of them.

      I read that yet more pointless regulation is on route for rental agencies, added to the new inconvenient PAYE rules. Why say you are going to have a bonfire of red tape when you are clearly doing the exact reverse?

      It just makes the government and ministers appear to be blatant ratters & liars – as very clearly they are.

  5. Winston Smith
    April 16, 2013

    I think most people agree Mrs T was a great PM. Her detractors have been exposed as nasty, ignorant losers. Myths have been destroyed in the debate that followed.

    Its time to move on. It would be really great to read, for once, about what you are doing to sort out our economic and social mess and how you are influencing those in power. For all your proposals, nothing is changing, nobody is listening within LibLabCon.

    Reply. We will move on on Thursday. Meanwhile how today’s politicians respond to the Thatcher legacy is an important part of today’s politics. I do regularly tell you what I am trying to achieve in this Parliament – and with colleagues sometimes achieve it, as with no Lords reform, yes to a referendum, and a lower EU budget.

    1. nicol sinclair
      April 16, 2013

      Reply to reply: “yes to a referendum,” but not before 2015 when there may be no need to follow up on the (cast iron) promise as it is highly likely that the Tories will not be (anywhere near) in Government. What is needed is a referendum on the EU NOW…

      “and a lower EU budget.” There is no sign of that happening in real terms. Only waffle…

    2. Andy Baxter
      April 16, 2013

      I hope that people don’t take this the wrong way although I must admit that it smacks of opportunism at a time of a famous person’s death but I do hope that what has been seen and heard of Margaret Thatcher over the last couple of weeks will have inspired not just those currently in politics but the next generation and the one after that.

      Some politicians, like people in general, will come and go having barely caused a ripple in the water.

      Once in a while one comes along who causes a tidal wave and it does not have to at the expense of their principles (indeed, Thatcher is so well loved because she not only laid down what her principles were for all to see but she seemed to actually follow them with almost every decision she made) and it is these rare individuals who achieve greatness and, through that, a kind of immortality.

      I do agree that the time to move on will be Thursday but hopefully a little bit of Thatcher will still be moving on within us.

  6. oldtimer
    April 16, 2013

    An interesting insight into her, and your, modus operandi. It is easy to believe that ministers, and PMs, can be distracted by events away from the core reason why they wanted to be elected to office in the first place. It is also easy to believe that critical faculties are suspended when so much, these days, has already been pre-digested and decided upon by the Eurocracy, their bureaucracy and the lobby groups that have effectively nobbled their thinking and decision making processes. This surely is the reason for the increasing national dissatisfaction with so much emanating from the EU with no apparent means of redress or reversal. One day, perhaps, Parliament will wake up from its sleep walk towards oblivion.

    1. alan jutson
      April 16, 2013


      Indeed a great insight as to the workings behind the scenes.

      Interesting the make up of your group/team John,

      Three seconded Business people, plus one other person with direct business experience, and an Accountant.
      Given you also have banking and business experience, and Mrs Thatcher had a father who was also in business, so was bought up in that environment.
      The weight of business and commerce outlook was more than 50% of the total, and thus probably fostered a can do attitude, which would cut through the bindweed which so often slows many a policy down, or strangles it altogether.

      Clearly Mrs Thatcher put a lot of trust in you and your group, and clearly it reaped dividends.

      Much better than Sofa Government, a dictatorship based on fear, or so called PR type policy announcements, which all fail at the first hurdle, because no one had any first hand business experience, commonsense or the simple understanding of human nature.

      Thank you, let us hope someday someone else will use your talents to the full to help the Country get out of the mess we are in..

  7. scottspeig
    April 16, 2013

    And one presumes you have told Cameron this, and that he hasn’t implemented it, and that he is exactly the sort of person you mentioned in your first paragraph. Why oh why is he still the prime minister? With all the stupid inane policies that get brought up and u-turned on, one would hope that there are plenty of candidates who would be better at the job!

    1. forthurst
      April 16, 2013

      “And one presumes you have told Cameron this, and that he hasn‚Äôt implemented it, and that he is exactly the sort of person you mentioned in your first paragraph.”

      I’m not so certain: Cameron may well have been born to greatness, with a smidgeon of greatness thrust upon him; there aren’t many Englishmen who can claim a notable madieval Jewish scholar, possibly descended from the mythical Moses as an ancestor, or any, in fact, or Scotsman besides. To achieve greatness whilst lacking any qualifications other than sharp elbows, might more suggest Margaret Thatcher’s heir. Being PM for Cameron must be a doddle; after all his domestic policy arrives by special courier from Brussels and his source of foreign policy goes without saying.

  8. Denis Cooper
    April 16, 2013

    “with a remit to engage with all policy areas with the exception of foreign affairs, and intelligence.”

    Pity about the exclusion of foreign affairs; because the EEC/EC/EU construct is based on international treaties, everything to do with that is part of foreign affairs.

    So much so that when the Labour government sought EU permission to provide state aid to our post office network the minister who corresponded with the EU commissioner on that matter was not the minister in charge of post offices but the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

    One of the letters may be read here:

    Sent by Mario Monti, the competition Commissioner, it was addressed to:

    “The Right Hon Jack STRAW MP
    Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
    Downing Street
    United Kingdom”

    Who would ever have thought that one day the future of our post office network would become a matter of foreign affairs?

    Reply: The Policy Unit did offer advice on the EEC/single market.

  9. Robert Taggart
    April 16, 2013

    Maggie did indeed get things done – there be the reason so many of her own side (all those ineffectual mysogynist ‘wet’ ‘gents’) – despised her !
    Those who ‘lost-out’ to her reforms quite understandably despise her – they had to adapt or die – they chose for the most part to sulk instead !
    Someone had to ‘shake-up’ Blighty – it fell to Maggie – good for her.

  10. Normandee
    April 16, 2013

    Interesting, and now we have nobody that will take the risks she did or inspire the dedication you had to her. We are desperate for a conviction politician, very soon we will be like France, completely bereft of politicians but with an abundance of “people in public service” Unless someone picks up the reins the slide into nonentity will continue.

  11. Mark B
    April 16, 2013

    A fascinating read. However I was interrupted after reading the first paragraph by next door’s cat letting out a rather large MEOW !! Cannot think why it would do such a thing.

    I am glad that you are finding the time to recount your time with Mrs. Thatcher and her Government. I wish others could also be persuaded to do likewise. Politics and government can come over very grey and distant to the masses. A little peek behind the curtain of power can help clear some of the myths and legends that occur in the absence of facts at the time.

    Good stuff, and once again, thank you.

  12. Bernard Juby
    April 16, 2013

    Dear John,

    What comes through in all of this is how much better you would be at running the country instead of the current incumbent – and please do not delete this because of modesty!

  13. John Doran
    April 16, 2013

    Another fascinating insight into how you helped Maggie get so much done, back in the good old days. 30 years on, I am reminded of an article I read in the Sunday Times, Jan 13, 2013. Steve Hilton left his post as David Cameron’s policy chief in “horror” as “important policy changes are pushed through by “paper-shuffling” mandarins”.

    He found 40% of govt time absorbed by EU regs, 30% by “random” things generated by our civil service, & 30% doing what they should be doing. The legislative function divvied up between the EU & our own bureaucrats, with our ministers trailing in 3rd place.

    Hilton shows a 1ft high (30 cms) pile of paperwork which he claims was 4 days activity for ministers to read & understand. “Impossible” he says. “The bureaucracy masters the politicians,” he told his students. “I don’t mean that in hostile way-it’s just a fact.”

    I can’t imagine Mrs T being mastered by any bureaucrat, or u-turning over cornish pasties, somehow.

    I read recently of a major Tory donor who deserted to UKIP after a dinner with Cameron at which Mr C wanted to discuss only the upcoming winner of X factor.

    I’ve voted Tory all my life, JR, but no more.

    Do you think a banking collapse & the end of our fiat money system inevitable?

    You may publish all or nothing or whatever parts you wish.


  14. uanime5
    April 16, 2013

    She wanted many more people to enjoy what had been the privileges of the few.

    Given how much income inequality increased while she was prime minister she was unsuccessful in this regard.

    1. Edward2
      April 16, 2013

      You missed out the bit about income inequality increasing rapidly under the 13 years of recent Labour Government Uni.

    2. Richard1
      April 16, 2013

      You are wrong, by any measure there was a huge increase in prosperity and it was very widely spread – far more so than ever before. Of course some people did better than others, but the leftist view which you seem to support prefers widespread poverty so long as its equal. East Germany is less equal now than it was under communism. China is now less equal than it was under Mao. North Korea is more equal than south Korea. But people seem to be keener on prosperity and freedom than on state enforced equality, which is why Margaret Thatcher won 3 elections.

  15. Electro-Kevin
    April 16, 2013

    I imagine being able to work very late was another attribute which enabled Mrs Thatcher to get things done (or – more to the point – prevent bad things from being done.)

    I find myself wishing to thank you once again for your part in effective governance.

    Thank you.

  16. Bert Young
    April 16, 2013

    I thought John Hoskyn’s appointment a strange one . I knew that Mrs. Thatcher was keen to have outside advice and opinion but she could have selected someone from a broader canvas . His computer service company was not particularly well – known or regarded and , his subsequent role in Burtons did not produce the change and expansion that was needed . To give him his due , I considered him to be a very intelligent , charasmatic and persuasive individual , however , she could have attracted someone of the same level of skill who had the experience of running a large organisation that had incorporated change and subsequently expanded . I knew that John Harvey Jones was not a favourite of hers , but he was one who would have done well in that policy role ; equally Peter Walters had the same strengths . There were others that were used from the outside who were not successful so , it did call to mind whether Mrs. Thatcher chose well at the time . Nevertheless , her foresight , leadership and achievements were second to none and her guts and determination brought about the changes that were necessary . I very much regretted that she was torpedoed and did not see out her full term . She deserves her place in history and stands as a fine example to all aspiring individuals .

  17. margaret brandreth-j
    April 16, 2013

    Mrs Thatcher therefore delegated in a democratic way, whereas your management style was more consultative or perhaps paternalistic.
    During the later 90’s and the early noughties I must have been for at least 50 interviews requiring presentations. After a No to a job following many of the interviews, it eventually twigged that ideas were being gathered by the various institutions and the interviews were a play act in that they always took on their own staff and very rarely actually employed any external person for that job. I with others was being heartbreakingly used. What I did gain was an insight into policies and how problems could be solved or at least improved.
    The presentations were mostly management orientated with the exception of one in Nottingham University where all the tutors wished me luck at a weekend interview and I was toppled by not having got my first degree at the right university. I was naively democratic . Most do not want this ,they want their own persuasive way. If persuasion gets a country out of a mess , so be it, as democracy has many bullies in numbers.

  18. Jon
    April 16, 2013

    Largely forgotten now but we used to be envied for our private pensions savings that we had, amongst the best in the world. That all got decimated by the Brown era in number 11 and replaced it with debt.
    Lady Thatcher in her early days said they are after your pensions and savings. She was not wrong and in 1997 Brown began plundering to the tune of £7bn a year.

  19. Richard1
    April 16, 2013

    The solicitude of the Left for the taxpayer , complaining about the tiny amount of money Lady T’s funeral will cost, is a remarkable turn of events. If only they had shown such solicitude when Labour were in power and had not then near bankrupted the UK with wasteful public spending, and were not now constantly agitating for more public spending as the solution to every problem.

    1. Bazman
      April 16, 2013

      Tiny amount? We will have to remember this when it is applied to a non North Korean causes of yours and others. Wasteful spending on the banks allowing bankers to pretend they are directors? Thatcher started it and Labour crossed the bridges. What has the Non Tax Payers Alliance got to say about the public funding the cost to the tune of 10 million for Thatchers funeral? Not a lot tells us all we need to know about this organisation.

      1. Richard1
        April 16, 2013

        If ¬£10m is the cost it is a tiny amount given Thatcher’s towering achievements in liberating the world from communism and Britain from people with views such as your’s. The great waste of money on the banking sector happened under a Labour govt and it happened as a result of failed big government policies. There is no basis in fact to say ‘Thatcher started it’.

        1. Bazman
          April 17, 2013

          Big Gang mean anything to you? As saving the world from communism and her towering achievements this is you fantasy much evidence says different. As do many wasted lives being her legacy in many parts of the country suffering social degradation as direct result of her policies. 10 million would be put to much better use and you know it. Ram it.

          1. Richard1
            April 18, 2013

            You clearly have no clue what you are talking about. Big bang was the abolition of fixed commissions and the allowing of international competition on the London stock exchange. There is no logic to stating that that was the cause of the financial crash 22 years later. You must explain what ‘ram it’ means since you use the expression often. It seems to mean ‘I don’t have any coherent arguments but I am impervious to reason and evidence’.

          2. Bazman
            April 19, 2013

            The safety net or firewall was removed and 22 years later the party ended. The regulation was taken away from the institutions and ironically put on the state to do the regulating allowing a free for all which ultimately would be the fault of any government. Thus the crash and the subsidising of the banking system by the state. Trebles all round. The degradation of the state in many area leading to mass unemployment was seen as a price worth paying by those who did not have to pay which from your arguments probably means your self, but you are not outside society and ultimately has paid in the stagnation of the economy and the rise in dependance of The City to pay taxes to susbsidise the incomes to livable levels. Third world income levels and peasants cannot happen here. (etc)

  20. Ralph McHendry
    April 16, 2013

    Mr Redwood, I generally like your comments, but you’re starting to sound sycophantic. Stop!

    1. Robert Taggart
      April 16, 2013

      Not just Johnny !
      Allow us this indulgence – until the day after she is finally laid to rest – beside her hubby – in Chelsea.
      After that – we will all have to move-on.

  21. Mark W
    April 16, 2013

    Interesting post Mr Redwood. Thank you. I imagine it was a challenging but rewarding job. I wonder how it may have changed in the years from then to now.

    I don’t know where the political characters are now. I could never forgive Heseltine for wielding that knife, but I can respect what a powerful foe he is. Even at his age the way he fought back on question time from St Paul’s in the face of the left’s assumption that it is always acting from some compassionate angle. Only Ken Clarke has that ability to land killer blows in the current team. I still believe that a Clarke/Redwood team in 97 would have been a powerful opposition. I can say that whilst in thoroughly disagree with Clarke on EU matters.

  22. Roy Grainger
    April 17, 2013

    Your first paragraph is such a blatant piece of anti-Cameron rhetoric that I’m surprised you put it in.

    For a while now I’ve been intrigued by your tone in this blog, you always write about “the government” in a detached way as if you are in no way a part of it despite the fact you are a member of the ruling party. On government policies themselves you seem to be at odds with so many across all areas that I really think you need to step back and consider why you are in the Conservatives at all. I can’t see a single policy difference between you and UKIP – is there one ? Why do you stay with the Conservatives ? Sentiment ? To keep your job as an MP ? I’m genuinely interested.

    Reply: We do not have a Conservative government. I was not elected to support a Coalition, but to further Conservative policies. Lib dem backbenchers do the same from their Lib dem point of view. The fact that UKIP agrees with some of what I say does not mean I have to join UKIP! The UKIP candidate in Wokingham in 2010 did not poll well.

  23. David Langley
    April 17, 2013

    Thatcher saw a revolution in Industrial Relations come into effect. Collective bargaining and a restriction on strikes and industrial unrest. It was however too late the damage had been done. I was a young apprentice engineer that saw my company slowly dying as ships were made quicker and better abroad so were cars and electronic equipment. Mining equipment and the actual products like coal from Poland was plentiful and cheaper. Manufacturing in the UK was virtually a basket case. Competition between countries with cheap and plentiful labour that used the ideas and skills gained here thrived. Thats where we are today, uncompetitive because we cost too much. The EU is trying to manufacture success without a clue economically, how can lazy uncompetitive countries with no history of commercial success and high living standards match the tiger economies for wealth, energy and the dynamics of progress. Thatcher for all her high handedness and imperious manner started the ball rolling but was axed by her own kind. Jealous and trodden on because they were lacking the right stuff they threw her out. I bet a lot of them now turn up at her funeral and have thoughts unsuited to today.

  24. Gordon Mutch
    April 17, 2013

    Many thanks for that (‘how Mrs T got things done’) and also for the links at the end of your pieces to other matters.
    I was reminded of John Hoskyn’s difficulties that he described in his book ‘Just in time’. Positioning your policy unit as a civil service unit was a shrewd move. Perhaps you could tell us more about how you selected and blended the unit members into a team – or, if you have already written about that, point us to the source.

  25. Jon
    April 17, 2013

    It’s interesting to read that someone with such a forceful personality as Margaret Thatcher still wanted a balanced assessment of the options.

    PS Are you going to respond to Bernard Juby’s point above?

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