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Release of MT's private files for 1983 - (4) Life at No.10

 

First-time visitors to No.10 Downing Street almost always express surprise at how large it is; the narrow frontage misleads.

The building in fact contains a collection of offices looking after different aspects of the Prime Minister's political and personal life. MT's government is the first for which we have archive material for many of these, such as the Press Office, the Political Office and the Diary Secretary. Placed alongside the purely personal filing from MT's flat, we get a richer picture of No.10 than has been available before.

1983: changing faces

MT refuses Gow's invitation to the Cavalry Club

The year 1983 saw a big turnover in MT’s immediate staff, a disorienting departure of familiar faces. Later criticised as constituting a kind of bunker, even as a kind of standing affront to cabinet government, her people at No.10 might better be described as extended family, with an important emotional as well as political role for her. By the end of the year in fact none of the senior staff, and few even of the middle-rankers, survived from May 1979. She took care that this kind of turnover never happened again, digging in to keep Charles Powell, for example.

The most important single loss was probably that of Alan Walters, who went back to the US for family reasons. MT made huge efforts to keep him, jokingly talked of conscripting him to the election team and deputed Gow to send messages along the lines of the following: "You are to remain until after Polling Day - and beyond. / Will you talk to Paddy [sic Paddie, Lady Walters], or shall I?" (Gow to Walters, 6 Apr 1983). MT gave him a knighthood in the dissolution honours. It wasn’t merely that she valued his advice, though she certainly did that; Walters had become an effective operator in the often dysfunctional relationship between No.10, the Treasury and the Bank of England. There are many references in his 1983 diary to meetings between “PM, EG and AW” – meaning Peter Middleton (Wass’s successor as First Permanent Secretary at the Treasury), Eddie George (the key markets man at the Bank) and Walters himself.  Each had the standing to deliver his respective boss and institution, mostly, so that serious business was done in this informal deputies group. Walters was not replaced, probably because they couldn't find anyone. Terry Burns and Tim Congdon were both mentioned as possible successors (Walters diary 17 Jan & 21 July), but nothing came of it. In the end Walters left in the second week of September, though he agreed to be available for long-distance consultation via the Washington Embassy, a poor compromise.

It is a puzzle that MT could not recruit and retain a like-minded economic adviser, even at the height of her power when it was clear her administration was likely to make a considerable impact. She had suffered the lack of one before Walters arrived and did so after he had gone. There was much public and private discussion at the time – discussion had been going on for years in fact - whether she should establish a full-scale Prime Ministerial Department, the Cabinet Secretary, Robert Armstrong, leading the forces opposed to the innovation. It isn’t entirely facetious to respond that he needn’t have worried: who would have been in it? In the end MT contented herself with abolishing the Central Policy Review Staff (against Armstrong’s preference) and bringing a few of its people into her own Policy Unit, which was marginally increased in numbers, though not necessarily strengthened (Armstrong, 10 June).

Ferdy Mount, head of her Policy Unit since John Hoskyns resigned in 1982, told her the Tuesday after the general election that he was resigning when he could find a replacement (as if it was his job to do that - Walters diary, 14 June). Mount’s genial memoir, Cold Cream, compares leaving No.10 to being told he was free of cancer. Walters noted earlier in the year that he was “not one of us” (19 Jan). In later years MT talked of his having been appointed to write her election speeches, as if it had never been intended that he would stay long or play an important policy role. But obviously life at No.10 was exhausting, and sometimes worse. Part of the turnover in 1983 can be explained by people it didn’t suit taking the natural opportunity offered by the election to move on.

Among officials, the two private secretaries she saw most of, Michael Scholar (Economics) and John Coles (Foreign Policy) both rotated back to their departments, as did Willie Rickett (domestic policy). Tony Parsons, her foreign policy adviser, left at the end of 1983, quite likely because the Foreign Office had made his life miserable. There is a hint in the files that he had not made that much of an impact at No.10: staff didn’t recognise his handwriting when at one point he sent MT a letter signed simply ‘Tony’. Among personal staff, MT’s diary secretary, Caroline Ryder, went on maternity leave just after the election. MT’s old friend and assistant Guinevere Tilney spent a long time in hospital and had to give up her work organising receptions at No.10.

Perhaps the biggest gap emotionally was created by the departure of MT’s PPS, Ian Gow, appointed Minister of Housing after the election. Gow was an all-purpose fixer, a natural-born conspirator and taker of risks, sometimes to excess. MT trusted and liked him; he was emphatically “one of us”, and brought humour and fun into her inner circle. He had been contemplating departure for at least a year, keen to start a ministerial career and aware that all too often he was becoming part of the story, acquiring the press persona of 'supergrass' when he ought to have been the invisible man. His replacement, Michael Alison, was a former Minister of State, a very different person. Those expecting someone in the same mould as Gow were mystified by his appointment. He had served in the Northern Ireland Office during the hunger strikes and his files suggest a man who now relished a bit of quiet – his appointment diary is surprisingly empty at times – and one finds an air of boredom on MT’s side, never present in the Gow era of bibulous plotting over lunch or dinner at the Cavalry Club. Although the Cavalry Club was a step too far for MT - she declined an invitation there from Gow and Parkinson on the grounds that you could plot better at home - she did like a bit more jollity. Alison seems to have detected this himself in MT's reaction to tea parties he had organised for her to meet the new intake of MPs (30 MPs down, only 60 to go – landslides can be a chore). He suggested drinks instead, and she underlined the word twice, with a tick in the margin just in case that wasn’t clear enough (Alison minute, 12 Dcr 1983). Deeply religious, a devotee of the Prayer Book Society, he was not himself a hard-drinking man – a lunch engagement with Alfred Sherman is pointedly marked ‘soda-water’. But that might have been a precautionary response to the company.

Although Sherman never worked at No.10, or anywhere else in government for that matter, he had been at one point among her most significant advisers. He too fell away in 1983, quarrelling bitterly with Hugh Thomas at the CPS. Things were patched up sufficiently to avoid a split before the election, but MT had had enough of him. She no longer seems to have read his many submissions to her and she saw less of him. Walters diary, 6 July 1983 records: "Alfred [Sherman] buttonholed me - dreadfully disappointed at PM's taking Hugh T's side”. Woodrow Wyatt filled some of the space Sherman had occupied, as an adviser on how the left thought and what to say to their disillusioned former supporters, and did it much more agreeably, though without Sherman's depth of insight. Perhaps in truth MT felt less in need of advice on that topic, and many others.

In the wider world of economic policy-making there were two important departures – Richardson at the Bank, denied the third term he had hoped for, already noted, and at the Treasury, the retirement of its First Permanent Secretary, Douglas Wass. He and the Governor represented the pre-Thatcher orthodoxy in economic policy, neither comfortable with her personally any more than they were politically. Both got slap up dinners at No.10 – Richardson’s was particularly grand, with a starry international guest list, which may have drawn something of the sting. We know from the diaries of the Bank's chief economist, Christopher Dow, that one respect in which Richardson very much approved of MT was in her role as châteleine of Downing Street; she put an end to the dowdy Callaghan-Wilson era in official entertainment with as much zeal as she despatched their economic and social policies. Tailored to the man, Wass's dinner on 28 March had more of a family feel and was striking for the teasing humour of the after dinner speeches. MT praised Wass’s rigour, pointedly attributing it to his mathematical training, "unusual for senior Treasury officials, among whom familiarity with figures has not traditionally been regarded as an important qualification". He hit back with a joke about her well-known fondness for enhancing the silverware at No.10 by borrowing other department's - he had them lock theirs up at the Treasury, he said, when she visited, and made Robin Butler pretend they had lost the key. In his letter of thanks (30 Mar 1983) Wass reminded her: “As I said to you a long time ago, 'We are all on your side'." It is doubtful she agreed. As with Richardson, she took care to see him replaced with someone more to her way of thinking, Peter Middleton.

Middleton was a Sheffield man, so No.10 asked to come up with a local joke for a speech she was giving to a not particularly sympathetic audience of businessmen in the city. He replied that he couldn't think of any, but he had been brought up on the following philosophy, which "I would not in any way recommend the Prime Minister to attempt to expound ... in public":

Ear all, see all, say nowt
Eat all, sup all, pay nowt
An if even tha does owt for nowt
Do it fer thi sen'.

It is not quite Grantham, but a lot closer to it than Bloomsbury. No Keynesian he.

1983: health & honours

At the end of July MT took the salute at RAF Cranwell. While she was there she experienced a problem with her right eye, which proved to be serious – a partially detached retina, requiring an operation a few days later. There were vast numbers of cards and messages, mostly very kind though not all entirely comforting. Former Conservative MP and SAS man, Stephen Hastings, a good friend, wrote: "Eyes are worrying when they go wrong. I was shot in one once and was told to lie still for days in case it became detached or fell out!"

The official version was that recovery was complete. In fact it was not quite so easy. Seeing her on television after the operation her surgeon noticed inflammation and called her back in. And there was a marked change in MT’s working regime: she stopped working late into the night, doing her boxes early instead (Walters diary, 5 Sept 1983). But quite likely the working day was somewhat shortened, in truth, because she already did a fair amount of work in the early mornings. Before the problem she had rarely worn glasses; now she had to wear them to read fine print, and for any reading at night (MT to Wassmouth, 1 Spt 1983).

MT received two particularly gratifying honours in 1983, an honorary benchship at Gray’s Inn and (far more exalted), fellowship of the Royal Society. The first brought her several visits from the Treasurer of the Inn, who insisted he had to see the Prime Minister in person to discuss important matters. Robin Butler met him in an attempt to discover the precise nature of the business, without success, but the Prime Minister indulged the man and he was given an appointment with her on 13 April, though sadly he proved breathless on reaching the top of the stairs to her study. He began sending letters to her addressed to “Dear Master Thatcher”, setting out the many social events she was now entitled to attend. He then wangled a further 45 minutes of her time in December, at which an official sat in and noted irritably: “The conversation was purely social and I do not propose to record it”. MT had fond memories of the law, and liked a good gossip too.

The Royal Society fellowship was much the greater honour, but partly spoiled. In a warning of events at Oxford a year or so later members of the Society critical of her government resisted the appointment, to the great embarrassment of Sir Andrew Huxley, the President, who had to postpone the admission ceremony. She wrote to him saying the delay did not detract in any way from the honour she felt. The pharmacologist Sir William Paton wrote attributing it all to “the activities of our lunatic fringe (that we, like other bodies, also possess)".

She met her old tutor, the Nobel prize-winning X-Ray crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin, on a visit to Somerville in February 1983 – where inevitably there were demonstrations, wordy JCR resolutions of protest (and support), etc. Professor Hodgkin was interested in reviving the connection and sent her a letter later in the year asking to be allowed to talk with her about relations with the Soviet Union. MT was hardly on a wavelength with her politically, since the Professor leaned heavily left, but respectfully invited her to lunch at Chequers on 31 July. That was the weekend when her eye was troubling her and Hodgkin wrote afterwards, probably without meaning to sound heartless: "I fear you must have been suffering on Sunday./ I very much enjoyed the occasion and I do hope something good comes out of it". In similarly brusque-consolatory style, she wrote later of the Royal Society snub: "I rather like the fact that the election was contested - making recent history. It must be many years since that last happened".

MT did a couple of things for Harrow later in the year. Robin Butler, ex-Harrow Head Boy, seems to have set it all up. First came an interview for The Harrovian with two adolescent journalists, one of whom has since become well-known, the historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore. They asked aggressive questions and drafted a surprisingly rude article. But they couldn't best Butler, who had cunningly secured in advance the right to apply the blue pencil to their work, a weapon he didn’t hesitate to use. Later in the year she went to the school to hear the ‘Churchill Songs’, spoke movingly and was presented with a bowl engraved with the names of Harrovian Prime Ministers.

1983:Reach for the sky

Birthday present

MT loved Yes, Minister and later Yes, Prime Minister, as is well known. After the election she got a letter of congratulation from the left-leaning member of the writing team, Jonathan Lynn, a small sign of her new reach electorally. The other half, Tony Jay, wrote speeches for various Conservative ministers. There is always at least one potential Yes, Prime Minister script in the files we release each year.

In 1983 there is a fine candidate, in the form of a bizarre inter-departmental argument about aerial advertising which even officials admitted had been going on “for a very long time now”. The Department of Trade wanted to liberalise it, to encourage entrepreneurial pilots – there were firms with names like “Flying Colours”, “Jumbo Inflatables”, even “Icarus Limited”. The Department of the Environment feared the conservation lobby who wanted to look up to the heavens of Constable and Turner unpolluted by marketing rubbish. The Department therefore defended existing law under which you needed planning permission to sloganize the sky.

Thatcherites leaned towards deregulation, naturally, and Gow plotted against the Environment Secretary, Tom King who (as he saw it) played the Jim Hacker role, a friendly man all too easily persuaded to sign impenetrable letters drafted by officials explaining why nothing could ever be done. There was a memorable skirmish at election time when ITN wanted to fly a blimp over central London announcing the result. After extensive study MT was solemnly told that:

To authorize the Goodyear Blimp would require a Statutory Order which would be a most unusual procedure when Parliament is not sitting and would normally be invoked in cases of the most urgent national necessity.

In addition to that, the Statutory Instruments would have to satisfy the message to be used [sic].

Score one to the Department of the Environment. But as luck would have it the Conservative conference in 1983 was in Blackpool, home to an avid aerial advertiser, a Mr Bateson, who made a point every time the Tories came there of flying a supportive banner, entirely illegally. It was suggested it would be wise to legitimise him this year, for fear of creating embarrassment at the conference, and so – finally – a modest liberalisation was achieved. In 1983 the banner read “Happy Birthday Maggie – You’re a winner”. There is a nice photo in her files, plane and banner framed against Blackpool Tower: see left.

Even then the story wasn’t entirely over. Cecil Parkinson’s resignation at Blackpool, a rather larger embarrassment than the one ministers had feared, led to Nick Ridley’s promotion to the Cabinet as Minister of Transport. He changed his department’s line and vowed to push for more radical reform the following year.

With only a little more effort one could probably find a connection to Nigel Farage’s near fatal plane crash towing a slogan during the 2010 general election, when aerial advertising nearly changed the course of political history.

Documents

Alan Walters 1983 diary [please note - 200MB file, may take some time to download]n

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