Greasy Pole: Beware of Leaders

It can be a time for their widespread regret, if not mourning, when any of our political leaders reaches the end of their time of dominance and the exposure of their futile dishonesty, leaving them with little more than a badge signifying their removal from the scene. Like Neville Chamberlain in 1938 waving his little piece of paper from Hitler to the crowd at Heston Airport. Like Ted Heath and his Three-Day Week which would replace slump with prosperity. Like Theresa May and her snap general election which was going to sweep away the muddle of Nick Clegg and that Coalition along with hapless Ed Miliband. But also, less enduring, there was John Moore who ended his time as Baron Moore of Lower Marsh. Moore was once favoured by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with a rocket-like rise up the Greasy Pole to the heights of Secretary Of State for Health and Social Security, where he enforced such changes as to nominate him Mr Privatisation with all the implicit rewards.


One response to this was from Ken Clarke, who during his time has occupied so many ministerial prominences – among them Health and Social Security – along with his preference for cigars, alcohol and jazz music. He assessed Moore as ‘bright and likeable…very popular with the press’ but someone who ‘…knew nothing about either health or social security and, as far as I could see, had no views on the subject. He was soon both overwhelmed and unnerved by the sheer scale of the problems he faced and the expectations he had to live up to’. Another Tory colleague compared him to ‘…a frightened rabbit mesmerised by oncoming headlights’. Except that Moore’s difficulties went rather deeper than that, for in November 1987 in the midst of the chaos of his life as a Cabinet Minister he was struck down by bacterial pneumonia. His desperation was such that his struggle to conceal his condition was undermined when he collapsed at a Cabinet meeting. He chose to be treated at a private hospital which at that time was charging thousands of pounds a day, but soon there was no alternative for Thatcher but to cut his Ministry in two and pass the portfolio for Health to Ken Clarke before, in 1989, sacking Moore from the Cabinet. In 1992 Moore gave it all up, standing down from Parliament to work his talents as Baron Moore of Lower Marsh in the House of Lords – which he attended only rarely – and to return to his former fields of profit gathering in banking and industry. 


Among the persistent critics of Moore in the Commons was Edwina Currie who at one time seemed to go out of her way to be one of Thatcher’s more unwise appointments. For example there was the occasion when, as a junior Minister for Health, she informed the nation that ‘…in the Winter it was the Northerners who, neglecting to keep warm, die of ignorance and chips’. In her younger days in Liverpool she had spent a lot of time adoring the Beatles in the Cavern Club before she became a rampant Tory through her time absorbing Economic History at the London School of Economics. She was elected to Parliament in 1983 for South Derbyshire, by which time she had amassed a reputation as a ‘virtually permanent fixture on the nation’s TV screen saying something outrageous about just anything… the most outspoken and sexually interested woman of her political generation’ – an assessment suitable to her affair with the future Prime Minister John Major, which lasted some four years when he was a Party Whip hoping to be promoted through the ranks. But then it was Major who, after reaching the heights of Chief Secretary to the Treasury, felt it necessary to end the affair, leaving her distressed but not so much that she could resist accusing him of ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’ and describing him as ‘one of the less competent Prime Ministers’ and later as ‘…too small minded in character, too small in intellect in the end’. And she did not consider it was the end of all affairs, asking herself, as she picked over the memories: ‘I daydream about another affair. Now, who might be interested?’


One of Currie’s responsibilities in the Ministry of Health was a Task Force involved in running the Broadmoor Hospital, that nervously guarded and controlled institution where the most dangerous and unpredictable of offenders are confined after being medically certified as in need of restraint as well as treatment. Currie appointed Jimmy Saville to the Task Force, allowing him keys which made him free to roam the hospital with access to every part of it and mingle with the patients including those who were severely disturbed and heavily medicated. That was before the full facts emerged of Saville being himself a highly unstable character, but there was still good reason to act with caution in so threatening an environment. Among the other disturbing events which Currie was active in was as Health Minister in 1988 when she provoked the fury of the dairy farmers and milk sellers by announcing that most British eggs were contaminated with salmonella. As a result some four million hens were slaughtered with a huge financial loss to the producers which brought about Currie’s resignation as a Minister. The panic and anger did not die down for some years; in 2001 it was revealed that at the crucial time there was a severe epidemic of salmonella in the hens but by then Currie was well into her alternative professions as a TV performer, writer of romantic fiction and the like.

In the ideal (for the politicians) world there is often an assumption that when a leader drops out they leave a swathe of affectionately wistful memories. But all our experience of examples of this – Moore, Major, Currie –  emphasises it is not so because their period in power followed the established interests of the higher, owning, exploiting class. It is our part to rebuild world society so that it is freer, safer and humane.


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