Maggie’s little golden boy

Having rid himself of one troublesome Chancellor of the Exchequer just eighteen months ago, Boris Johnson seems to realise it would be unseemly to jettison another, even if the previous incumbent has had time to rejoin the Cabinet.

Nevertheless, Rishi Sunak – possibly not to his own displeasure – continues to be talked up for a move next door. Even apart from any possible policy disputes, speculation about the succession would understandably unsettle a Prime Minister who himself only moved into No10 just over two years ago.

Of course, being widely tipped as a next First Lord of the Treasury is no guarantee of the top job: just ask the likes of Roy Jenkins, Michael Portillo and David Miliband among others – history records more future PMs than actual ones. But in those cases, a mixture of mistimed vacancies and missing ruthlessness at the crucial moment cost them the crown, rather than a calamitous blunder in office removing any credible chance of promotion.

Sunak, either through skilful judgement or plain dumb luck, has avoided such a fall from grace as swift as his rise. He might do well to remember, though, a previous political star that rose without trace only to be swiftly reshuffled from the Department of Hubris to the Ministry for Nemesis.

When John Moore was appointed to the Cabinet on 21 May 1986 (nine days after Sunak turned six years of age), he had good reason to believe his post in charge of the Department of Transport was merely a brief stop on the fast track to the most prestigious of destinations.

Moore’s hinterland was far from standard boilerplate. From a modest background – his father was a publican, which allowed a scholarship to the independent Licensed Victuallers’ School – Moore, after national service in Korea, studied under one Ralph Miliband at the London School of Economics while campaigning both for the Conservatives and against apartheid. He married an American and moved to the US, becoming involved in Democratic Party politics in the Chicago of Mayor Daley. He then returned home to become a stockbroker and still in his 30s was elected an MP in 1974, winning the newly-created marginal of Croydon Central.

Smooth, good-looking and an intellectual ally of Sir Keith Joseph, it is fair to say Moore – who liked to begin work at 7am each day after an exercise routine – could barely have been better placed for advancement under Margaret Thatcher. And indeed it came. Moore was made a party vice-chairman in opposition before being appointed in 1979 as a junior minister for energy, tasked with making the coal industry fit for market forces. He was moved to the Treasury under Nigel Lawson in 1983, specialising in overseeing privatisations of utilities including British Telecom and British Gas.

So by the time Moore reached the Cabinet in 1986, it was as something of a golden boy, boosted further as Transport secretary as he helped the sale of British Airways and proved an adroit public handler of the Zeebrugge disaster. Featured prominently in the 1987 General Election campaign, Moore received a considerable promotion to become Secretary of State for Health and Social Services.

‘He has future Tory leader written all over him,’ declared Brian Walden in The Times, while Kenneth Clarke later told Thatcher biographer Charles Moore (no relation): ‘Margaret had decided John Moore was her successor. He took on the Cecil Parkinson role.’

If Moore could reform the NHS and welfare systems – as promised in a manifesto section running to more than 2,000 words – he might well be the man in place when the lady ceased to go on and on and on. However, unlike Moore’s previous successes, any NHS reform would not just be a case of a stock market floatation and slick TV ad. In fact, Charles Moore points out she “never ceased to worry that the NHS had the potential to destroy her politically and electorally”.

However John Moore was an enthusiast for the American insurance model, or at least he allowed himself to give that impression with a series of speeches. Even if this was deep down what Thatcher would have liked to do, it was not her public position. It all raised suspicions about Moore’s ambitions, in the same way some feel Sunak has been signalling that he does not share Johnson’s apparent timidity on unlocking and keeping a rein of public spending.

Talking of spending, the NHS was increasingly in debt and Moore – not long out of the Treasury himself – did not push his old boss Nigel Lawson hard, so that limits on spending led to lengthening waiting lists and deteriorating industrial relations. Lawson’s deputy as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, John Major, claimed he himself talked Moore out of demanding more money, and even if this was not the full truth, it was already clear which of the PM’s fast-tracked proteges was becoming the one to watch. Moore began to find newspapers being briefed that Thatcher was distancing herself from him.

The premier herself decided to take command, appearing on Panorama that January to boast of the ‘facts’ of their generosity to the NHS and to say that she and Moore would form a small working group to decide what happened next. In the review, Moore found himself caught between Thatcher proposing tax relief for private insurance and Lawson favouring NHS charges, while he himself suggested allowing people to opt out of the NHS. Little was settled, and the minister often found himself second best in the Commons to Labour spokesperson Robin Cook.

His apparent lethargy in the House was in part medical. Late in 1987 Moore, the epitome of a healthy lifestyle, had been stricken by bacterial pneumonia; he tried to work through it but eventually passing out in a Cabinet meeting. That he was admitted to a private hospital seems to have been nothing to do with him – he was taken directly there unconscious from 10 Downing Street – but it wasn’t an ideal look for the Health Secretary to be seemingly snubbing the NHS.

An enforced absence when the government was coming under fire at the end of 1987 was followed by a perhaps premature return, his recovery incomplete. ‘The old energy is not there,’ was Thatcher’s verdict on Moore’s performance in a key debate in January 1988. ‘It’s all horrible, Moore told Treasury official Jill Rutter, who reflected to Charles Moore: ‘You could see his political career crash and burn.’

The golden-boy image Moore had possessed when he arrived at the DHSS had evaporated through a mixture of ill-fortune, ill-judgement and ill-health.

After just over thirteen months in the role, in July 1988 Moore found his job split up with Kenneth Clarke becoming Health Secretary, while he retained Social Security. It wasn’t quite a sacking, but a serious demotion little more than two years into his Cabinet career did not suggest Moore was on an upward trajectory. Clarke soon talked Thatcher out of Moore’s more radical ideas for boosting private insurance in the NHS, and even in his new reduced position, he fared little better.

A May 1989 speech seeming to imply that poverty was a thing of the past did not help his public image. The accompanying policy document was entitled The End of the Line for Poverty, but actually it was the end of the line for his political career – in fact whip Tristan Garel-Jones is rumoured to have crossed out ‘Poverty’ on the title page of his copy and written in ‘John Moore’.

Within two months he was fully sacked from the Cabinet, and left the Commons in 1992. Moore was sent to the Lords (choosing as his territorial designation Lower Marsh, site of the market near Waterloo where his grandfather sold fish), but in his 27 years there before his 2019 death, he did not even make a maiden speech or any spoken contribution; having found himself effectively finished at 51, he was disillusioned with politics.

Instead he returned to business, eventually becoming chairman of Rolls-Royce, but he did make one last political intervention: when his old tutor and father of the then Labour leader was traduced by the Daily Mail in 2013, the one-time scourge of socialism declared:

Ralph Miliband taught me and I can say he was one of the most inspiring and objective teachers I had. Of course, we had different political opinions, but he never treated me with anything less than complete courtesy and I had profound respect for his integrity … I saw him week after week and it beggars belief that the Daily Mail can accuse him of lacking patriotism. I never heard him ever say one word which was negative about Britain – our country.

For someone whose name, if remembered at all, is associated with either the most heartless arrogance of free-market Conservatism or unqualified political failure, his defence of the Marxism and Politics author shows that Moore was more than the subject of a useful fable to tell uppity ministers. But fable it is, of a man described in the first sentence of his Daily Telegraph obituary as ‘the Icarus of Margaret Thatcher’s government’.

Moore’s is not a unique story – Stephen Byers was much touted and then crashed, arguably even more ignominiously. Gavin Williamson and Priti Patel might also belong on that list if Boris Johnson had not given both a route back from political disgrace, though both would have been possible leadership candidates in 2019 had they not given Theresa May cause to sack them from her own Cabinet. Dominic Raab, not being written up as a potential Prime Minister quite as much as after his caretaker spell last year, had a more gradual and careful rise but that might not spare him a similar fate.

Whatever Johnson’s current frustrations, he has no immediate cause to administer a Theresa May-style jettisoning to Sunak, who not so long ago he elevated at even greater speed than Thatcher did Moore. Sunak, though, might take pause to reflect that Moore’s demise came when he was handed a challenge of a different order to those he had previously hurdled.

The Chancellor is about to face post-pandemic spending and policy decisions every bit as delicate of those when another man who had ‘future Tory leader written all over him’ was charged with simultaneously reforming the NHS and social security. A classicist like Johnson may yet have his own Icarus on his hands.


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