UK: Life after Thatcher - a return to business as normal.

UK: Life after Thatcher - a return to business as normal. - Will John Major be able to hold out against the men in suits in a way that his predecessor did not really need to? asks Julia Langdon.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Will John Major be able to hold out against the men in suits in a way that his predecessor did not really need to? asks Julia Langdon.

It was, famously, the men in suits who were involved in the dispatch of Mrs Thatcher. It is men in suits who have taken over now in Downing Street. John Major and Norman Lamont, his Chancellor, both qualify as "suits", being bankers by original profession, and that alone marks the difference more than anything else.

The change was remarkable as soon as Mrs Thatcher had walked out of the door. It was not merely the fact that the phrase "Prime Minister's handbag" was no longer appropriate; it was something much more profound than that. There was almost a palpable sense of relief in Westminster, in Whitehall, and particularly in Europe, that business could once again be conducted according to the rules of the way in which men do things.

It was not, of course, that Mrs Thatcher was not as good, or better, than any of the blokes. The long-running jest that she was the only "real man" in the Cabinet was based on the reality that she ran a one-woman government for much of her period in office. She did so against incredible odds, winning the leadership in the first place as an outsider, and then being obliged to operate in a male-dominated atmosphere where all of the real business had previously been done in clubs and bars. The picture portrayed by "Yes, Prime Minister" is so popular in Whitehall because of the delight of recognition in its accuracy.

It was partly because Mrs Thatcher is a woman that she was able to be so radical as a prime minister. She did things differently, partly because she had to, because she did not go to Buck's for lunch or the Carlton for dinner, as well as because she wanted to be different. That, too, was another reason why the suits were glad to see the back of her. Inadvertently, Mrs Thatcher may have succeeded in doing a great deal for the feminist cause, in proving that a woman can do the job, can stay up as late as the men, work as hard, fight her corner and win more often than not. But the truth is that as soon as she had gone the establishment replaced the old order of doing things.

That much was clear at John Major's first international outing at the European Council summit in Rome in December. Mrs Thatcher had always created trouble on the European circuit, not just because she was Mrs Thatcher and looking for it, but because customary European courtesy dictated that la Dame de Fer should be accorded the privileges of her sex, put in the middle of the family photo, sat next to the host at dinner, allowed out of the door first. It was with great satisfaction that they put Mr Major, the new boy, on the outside of the formal grouping for the official picture; the local newspapers even trimmed him off the edge, probably not knowing who he was.

One of the nice things about John Major is that he will not mind being treated as a newcomer. He is an extraordinarily unpretentious man, with an apparently profound sense of the egalitarian. What he does not like is being patronised, by anyone - suit wearing or otherwise. He may be relatively young and inexperienced; three years in the Cabinet is quite a short time, after all, but then he is the Prime Minister.

He did make the initial mistake of failing to appoint a woman to his Cabinet. It seems likely that this was a genuine error. He put the men in the jobs which he wanted them to do, because they were right for the job, without consideration of their gender. It was an easy mistake to make, partly because of the shortage of high-flying, female candidates available at the time, and probably also because he is an egalitarian and would not support positive discrimination for its own sake. Politically, it was unwise, however, even though he did redress the balance by appointing women to two of the key top posts in his administration: his political secretary and the head of the Downing Street think tank.

Even so, it will be hard for the new Government to withstand the pressure of the suits. There have been three women this century who have reached the top rank in the Civil Service, but they are still very much in the minority. There is still a serious shortage of women MPs and they remain thin on the ground in official circles at Westminster. Women bankers are still something of a novelty, and prime ministers have quite a lot of business to conduct with bankers, and even women political journalists are sufficiently scarce on the ground to be constantly confused with each other. It is a bit like being Japanese - "they all look alike, you know, old boy".

It is too soon to be able to assess whether a Conservative prime minister, even one with egalitarian instincts, will be able to counter the establishment and hold out against the suits in a way that his predecessor did not need to. A new prime minister necessarily has many priorities, but the world will be watching to see how Mr Major accommodates women in his declared aim of securing a country at ease with itself.

(Julia Langdon is political editor of The Sunday Telegraph.)

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