Thatcher, Johnson, and crisis meetings

I’m in quite a curious position right now. My research project, which examines political networks through the lens of appointment diaries, has suddenly become very topical.

For the best part of a year I have been poring over Margaret Thatcher’s meeting schedule, becoming increasingly acquainted with the inner workings of the British core executive – and now the PM’s day-to-day activities have been projected quite vividly (luridly, even) into our collective conscience. I feel a bit cold about it all, though, for reasons that are probably obvious.

We learned this week that Boris Johnson missed five Cobra meetings on the Covid-19 pandemic. These are briefings where the British government co-ordinates its response to national or regional crises. Johnson’s non-attendance has led to widespread criticism in the media, which is understandable given the UK’s alarming (and frankly depressing) rate of Covid fatalities compared to most other nations globally. He has, however, been defended by cabinet minister Michael Gove, who highlighted that PMs do not always attend Cobra meetings, and so his absence was not out of the ordinary.

Reading about the Cobra fiasco made me think about some of the analysis of Thatcher’s diaries that I’ve done so far. There is a particularly interesting period during the 1979 Parliament when her ministerial network altered markedly, and it was during the Falklands Crisis. I thought that I’d share some of these findings, because they are quite evocative of the current situation in Whitehall.

The simplest (and most striking) way to present the results is via network diagrams. First, let’s consider Thatcher’s meetings with cabinet ministers in March 1982 – the month immediately prior to the Falklands conflict.

35 Mar-82

This is fairly typical of the PM’s ministerial network at that time. When Thatcher entered office in May 1979, she faced a lot of internal opposition from senior members of the Conservative Party, who considered her to be an untried extremist. By September 1981, however, she had shifted the balance of power in her favour by promoting several of her supporters to the cabinet, and removing some of her opponents. As a result, the overall density of her networks increased notably in subsequent months, and fewer ministers were left on the sidelines.

Now let’s consider April 1982.

36 Apr-82

We see here that the Defence Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster were suddenly the intense focus of the PM’s attention. These ministers were all on the hastily arranged Falklands War Cabinet, which convened 66 times between April and July 1982, when the conflict ended. The PM continued to meet all of her cabinet ministers, but the thinning of the edges (lines between nodes) shows that, for the most part, these appointments were less frequent than they were in March.

Finally, a look at May.

37 May-82

Meetings with the War Cabinet continued apace, as would be expected. However, in the thick of the crisis, the PM stopped meeting many cabinet colleagues altogether. It is interesting that this didn’t happen sooner – Argentina invaded the Falklands on 2nd April. Perhaps it’s because the British Task Force took weeks to reach the South Atlantic. Or maybe it reflects Thatcher’s general reluctance to refuse meetings.

From the analysis I have done so far, no other period of Thatcher’s premiership resulted in such a profound network contraction. I imagine that, having returned to work after a near-fatal bout of Coronavirus, Johnson’s ministerial network will look not entirely dissimilar to this, as the SAGE Committee attempts to navigate us through the pandemic.

Ultimately for Thatcher, the Falklands War, and her decisive (albeit reactive) response, sealed her second term in office. It remains to be seen, however, what effect the current crisis will have on Johnson premiership.

* Network diagrams omit meetings of the full cabinet, and are instead based on cabinet committees and ad hoc meetings with ministers.

2 thoughts on “Thatcher, Johnson, and crisis meetings

  1. Interested stuff – thank you!

    In March 1982, it’s vaguely interesting how rarely Mrs T met the Welsh and Scottish Secretaries, compared to the NI Secretary. (I know NI caused her, er, some challenges.) It’s slightly more interesting how rarely she met with the law officers, although the Lord Privy Seal is a sinecure, and the Lord Chancellor’s role is to make the UK courts run smoothly.

    By April, she met the Scottish Secretary more often than the NI and Welsh Secretaries. What was going on there?

    It’s also interesting that the law officers remained less significant. (Remember the, er, legality of the sinking of the Belgrano?) Also, she met the chancellor of the Exchequer much less frequently. Perhaps this means they had a good relationship. Perhaps she just assumed that the money for the Falklands war would just arrive.)

    Is ‘Chanc_Duchy’ the Chancellor of the Duch of Lancaster? If so, what’s going in with the increased number of meetings in May? Part of CDL’s role is to manage the Duchy, it provides the monarch’s private income. However, the main role appears to be development of policy, i.e. minister without portfolio. I can’t remember who it was at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment Bruce! Glad it’s of some interest.

      The reason she met with the Scottish Secretary more than the Welsh and NI Secs in April is not hugely interesting, unfortunately. There are loads of small fluctuations month to month between ministers of similar importance/popularity, and in this case he just happened to be in attendance at a couple of (distinct) meetings, one of which was on MP’s pay.

      Perhaps a bit more interesting is just how little the Scottish and Welsh Secretaries – Welsh in particular – featured during her first term. If you exclude meetings of the full cabinet the Welsh Secretary only met with the PM in about a quarter of the months during that time, and the Scottish Secretary roughly half. They become notably more popular (relatively speaking) at the beginning of 1983, and I think it’s because the government was ramping up it’s preparations for a coal dispute.

      That’s a really interesting point re the law officers and the Belgrano/conflict in general – certainly the Attorney General was on the War Cabinet, but he was not actually a cabinet minister and so doesn’t feature in the above graph. I suspect the Lord Chancellor didn’t feature much because he was hostile to Thatcher’s policies (Lord Hailsham).

      Regarding the Exchequer during the Falklands – Harold MacMillan apparently advised her not to include him in her war cabinet, to make sure she didn’t make decisions based on money. Apparently he wasn’t best pleased!

      Chancellor of the Duchy at that time was Cecil Parkinson, who was one of Thatcher’s favourites apparently. I think his career would have gone into orbit if it wasn’t for his extracurricular misdemeanours. Unless, of course, she ended up alienating him which she seemed to do with most of her supporters (politicians, at least).

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