In recent days, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has been described as a loose cannon and an unexploded bomb, all of which is meant to suggest she poses a wild-card "Thatcher problem" to current Prime Minister John Major.
And while Major has gracefully passed over various remarks attributed to Thatcher, his aides express private concern that his onetime mentor could embarrass the government--at a time when it is trailing the Labor Party in opinion polls.
Some moderate members of the Conservative Party have gone so far as to suggest that Thatcher should be "muzzled."
But the threat of silencing the long-time prime minister has provoked outraged comment from her supporters in the Tory right wing. One of them, former Cabinet minister Nicholas Ridley, referred to the Catholic order whose priests take a vow of silence and declared this week: "Let no one try to make her into a Trappist nun."
Major's aides, however, privately say they wish Thatcher would think more carefully before she declaims on various subjects. "She has a tendency to speak to foreign media, not quite realizing that it's going to come back here," said a Major assistant.
Major has made painstaking efforts to effect Tory unity since Thatcher's ouster last November. The last thing he needs now, aides say, is to face potshots from the sidelines from his former boss.
Among other things, she was recently profiled in Vanity Fair magazine in a piece that was published in America but which drew considerable interest in the British press.
Thatcher's latest outburst came in an interview with a Japanese magazine, in which she repeated her support for the highly unpopular community poll tax, which she introduced--but which Major and the Tories have now scuttled.
In an implicit criticism of her successor, Thatcher said she had no regrets over the tax. That caused anxious moments at No. 10 Downing Street--and among Tory back-benchers in Parliament, who are looking at polls showing the Conservatives running 10% behind the Labor opposition.
"If local government comes to rely entirely on subsidies from central government," said Thatcher, " . . . then, eventually, the entire country will go to ruin."
Major met the challenge with a stiff upper lip, declaring of Thatcher, without naming her: "Every member of this House has a right and duty to speak their mind."
Another source of intra-Tory friction this week was a statement by the so-called Bruges group established after a hard-hitting speech by Thatcher in the Belgium city in September, 1988, in which she robustly argued against Britain's getting overly involved in a united Europe. That group of right-wing MPs, of which Thatcher is honorary president, leaked a confidential document this week in which they talked of launching a campaign to "assist the prime minister in making up his mind, or actually force his hand," in opposing a single European currency.
Other stories quoted sources close to her as saying that Thatcher described Major as "gray" and that he "stands for nothing--he is nothing. He has no ideas. I have been totally deceived."
Thatcher denied that account in the Sunday Telegraph. But many political observers wondered if the substance of the remarks in fact represents her true feelings toward her onetime protege.
Some senior Tories want to see Thatcher resign her seat in the House of Commons and be promoted to the House of Lords. By doing so, she would remove herself, once and for all, from consideration as a potential party leader and prime minister again. She would quiet the wagging tongues that suggest she is a lady-in-waiting--for the call to again take the Tory reins.
Still, Thatcher has a core of dedicated supporters, and it will be hard to muzzle her. As the London Daily Mail's political writer Colin Welch put it: "Wherever she goes, what Mrs. Thatcher says remains news. She could speak from hell or the Lords, from the ladies room or the sunset home, and still command attention."
Thatcherisms From the 'Iron Lady'
- "If local government comes to rely entirely on subsidies from central government, in other words, (to ) rely on support from heavy taxes levied on the citizens as a whole, then, eventually, the entire country will go to ruin."
--In a Japanese magazine, on poll tax .
- "The pattern of my life was fractured. . . . It's like throwing a pane of glass with a complicated map upon it on the floor and all habits and thoughts and actions that went with it and the staff that went with it. . . . You threw it on the floor and it shattered. . . . You couldn't pick up those pieces."
--In Vanity Fair, on how she felt after resigning .
- "I'd still be there if I had my choice, so I decided to do the best thing for my party for the future. . . . And I knew I'd still have a good bit of influence."
--In Vanity Fair, on her decision to quit .