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Release of MT's private files for 1979 - (2) Life at No.10

 

As the files are released we will come to know about life at No.10 under the Thatcher premiership than for many, perhaps any, of her predecessors, because so much more has been kept.

 

life at no.10: engagements

Carol Thatcher (left) with Caroline Stephens (right), MT's first diary secretary as PM, later Mrs (now Lady) Ryder. Photographed during the 1979 General Election

There is a mass of material on MT’s engagements (a series kindly given to MT by the head of the Garden Room in 1995).

Caroline Stephens (photograph on the immediate right) was MT's first diary secretary as PM. Default mode for Prime Ministerial secretaries is to fend people off, naturally enough, since demand for the PM's time greatly exceeds the supply. But MT found it surprisingly difficult to say ‘no’, and so Caroline Stephens's hints, suggestions and pleas - "Regret?", "Refuse?", "You are very busy that week" - were often turned down. In this mode one finds MT deciding she must accept the Freedom of the Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (“Is it done to refuse? Can it be done nicely, or shall we plead no time?”), take the salute at the Metropolitan Police’s 150th Birthday Bash (“Alas we have to”), and meet Wakefield Cub Scouts (“It won't take much time - ten minutes”).

There were some very gratifying invitations. For example, Parliamentary colleague and friend David Renton organised a dinner celebrating her arrival at the premiership by the Benchers at Lincoln’s Inn, where she had practised at the Bar. He spoke with great wit and warmth of sponsoring her for membership in 1950 and she made a full-scale speech in reply. One curious document in the files shows that had the weather been worse that winter she might have spent rather longer than a single evening among the lawyers: when it seemed that central London might flood in Nov 1979 - the Thames Barrier was only completed in 1982 - the contingency plan was to evacuate No.10 to a government building at Lincoln’s Inn, with the PM commuting daily from Chequers.

MT already had troubled relations with Oxford. Her old college, Somerville, was holding a reunion (‘Gaudy’) to mark its centenary. MT heard about it but did not receive an invitation so – evidently hurt –asked a fellow Somerville graduate to find out quietly whether they wanted her to come. The college said the letter had gone astray and she attended. A few months later the college Principal wrote her sharply attacking the government’s increase in fees to overseas students.

Denis Thatcher often attended his wife’s engagements, especially dinners. These were not always a joy to him. “Another dreaded State Banquet I'm afraid” Caroline Stephens wrote explaining that she had accepted an invitation on his behalf. DT’s wrote a heartfelt reply: “(1) J.C. What I do for the Party! I have entered and will show up. (2) The same evening I was going to attend probably the best Rugby Football Dinner this year, namely the centenary of the Middlesex RFU. All me chums will be there!”

It probably didn't help that food at state dinners was not always good. In fact the No.10 dinner to the President of Colombia on 3 July was so abysmal MT wrote a Prime Ministerial minute to the Lord President of the Council asking him to investigate (20 July): “I am not at all happy with the standard of catering and service provided by the Government Hospitality Fund”. There is a touch of authentic, dry Thatcher humour in the minute: Christopher Soames was the responsible minister, a former Ambassador to Paris and European Commissioner, a man who knew something about good food and had the girth to prove it.

life at no.10: gifts & awards

Prime Ministers receive huge numbers of gifts in the line of work. They are strictly limited as to what they can accept outright (by value) and in many cases this restriction must be a blessing.

But some plainly went down well. Hastings Banda of Malawi received a warm reply for a rug (14 Spt 1979). “Your lioness – it is hard to think of it as a mere rug – is now on guard in the hall of my flat”. (It should have been called the Lion Lady.)

Compensating for the poor quality of Whitehall catering, there was a gift of excellent foie gras by the Mayor of Strasbourg – former French PM Pflimlin – at the Strasbourg European Council in June 1979. That went to the flat at No.10. She lovingly archived the beautifully produced menu from the Council (catered by the kitchen of the Elysée Palace), the first of her set.

And she became the reluctant recipient of the Maharishi Award of the Age of Enlightenment because the Home Office took so long providing No.10 with background on the group (concluding they were a bit odd, but nothing proven) that she felt it was rude to refuse. The state did not totter.

life at No.10: holidays

She wouldn't take one. Even before she became Prime Minister her staff were struggling to get her to take time off. There was a theory this would do her good, and certain knowledge that a rest would do them good. Just before the election in 1979 her long-serving secretary Alison Ward (later Lady Wakeham) wrote to Peter Morrison (a fellow MP and early supporter, whose family owned much of the beautiful island of Islay, and had offered board): “I know you understand how keen we are that Mrs. Thatcher should have a proper holiday this year”. The same document shows the frightening level of planning and logistical orchestration necessary for any kind of visit.

life at no.10: the prime minister's car

There is a note on the need to get new cars for the PM (by the man who usually handled ecclesiastical patronage at No.10) which reveals the way the machine sometimes held things back from ministers. It is a fascinating little story, as much or more about MT's predecessor as PM, Jim Callaghan , but worth telling here.

Callaghan's chief policy adviser Bernard Donoughue, kept a wonderful diary. On 1 Spt 1978 (Downing Street Diary, Volume 2: pp353-54) he records Callaghan approving the purchase of new cars, British built Rover 3.5s. They arrived with masses of faults. The faults were fixed, supposedly, then the cars fitted out at huge expense for Prime Ministerial use (armoured, given state of the art communications, etc). They proved hopeless. Finally one day the PM pressed a button to lower the window and the glass fell into his lap. He told his chief official, Ken Stowe: “I never want to see the cars again”.

In their way they were a perfect emblem of British industrial decline, and also a major headache for Stowe. He suddenly found himself with £250,000 of armoured limousine to lose behind the sofa.

Enter MT. As the phrase goes, No.10 pressed the reset button. There was no hint of what had gone before in what MT was told. The failed Rover is mentioned as being on the inventory, then artfully set aside: “The new Rover 3.5 can be eliminated at once. It will not do as a main car; it is adequate for use as a back-up car”. She was led through the other options – including, absurdly, a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. (“The use of a Rolls by The Queen’s First Minister is in many ways wholly desirable and appropriate. But in the past there have been presentational inhibitions about acquiring one …”) She eventually opted for Daimlers.

life at no.10: the pm's postbag

We have the weekly analysis of incoming post – breaking down correspondence by subject and giving numbers plus assessment. MT occasionally looked at this, notably after Mountbatten’s assassination. In no sense a scientific survey of the state of British public opinion, a weather eye was kept on the postroom.

life at no.10: the pm's diet?

Perhaps this should read "The Leader of the Opposition's Diet", a pre-election spruce up in anticipation of a photographic onslaught. In MT's engagement diary for 1979 a "Mayo Clinic Diet" was found, annotated and ticked like a state paper, a pre-Atkins high protein diet in which grapefruit was the magic ingredient. She stopped using the diary once she went to No.10, so the diet almost certainly predates the premiership.

Research has shown that the name is misleading: the diet had no connection with the real Mayo Clinic, which issued disclaimers and writs to no effect for many years before deciding recently to produce one of its own, bearing no resemblance to the diet MT used.

Sharp-eyed reporters at the press preview of these documents calculated that MT was eating 28 eggs a week, but probably for no longer than a fortnight.

MT in fact discussed the diet in an interview with the Sun on 13 March 1979. At that point she acknowledged weighing 9.5 stone (133 pounds) and was 5'5" tall. But the present Whitehall editor of the Sun, a dieting veteran, noted that the diet she described in the interview differed from that in the diary. Accordingly there may have been two diets.

Life at No.10 documents

 

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