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.
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.
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.
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.