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Release of MT's private files for 1984 - (3) Politics & life at No.10

Although it had grim, even nightmarish aspects, 1984 was not all George Orwell. There was quite a lot of business as usual, and at times the authors of Yes, Prime Minister got closer to the core of things

1983-84 oct 6-11: the economy

Opening of Charles Powell's masterly letter to the Japanese rose grower

Following her triumphant re-election in June 1983, MT had replaced Sir Geoffrey Howe with Nigel Lawson at the Treasury. Lawson was far more of her way of thinking on the economy, a brilliant man with personal and intellectual authority sufficient to command even the very cleverest officials, a rare combination. And yet within months of his appointment one finds signs of tension between the Treasury and No.10.

Much of this originated in MT’s rooted mistrust of the Treasury, which often fell not far short of her feeling about the Foreign Office. Big bureaucratic institutions offended her on many grounds. She mistrusted the air of groupthink, however sophisticated, as well as their clubby, chummy, old-boy network feel. And she suspected them of working together to bounce her in one direction or another – certainly true of the Treasury and the Bank of England, which rarely attended a meeting together without agreeing a common position in advance. Her views were perfectly compatible with a high personal regard, even affection, for individual officials from the offending institutions, who could achieve a kind of qualified exemption from collective guilt, on demonstrating good character.

It is likely too that the new head of her Policy Unit, John Redwood, sowed seeds of trouble with Lawson. On 10 Jan he sent her a minute on "Bank Lending & the Money Supply". "Today's money figures confirm the comparative laxity of our monetary policy. … not compatible with long-term price stability". [1/15/5A p4 f6] This was not a helpful submission from the Treasury's point of view, and MT’s Economics Private Secretary Andrew Turnbull (a Treasury official on secondment of course) raised a question mark over the analysis. MT read it closely, as she did Redwood’s briefing for her Walden interview on Sunday 15 January which suggested that she make a priority of cuts in tax rates, as opposed to Lawson, who at this stage was much more interested in raising thresholds.

One should not exaggerate the problem at this point. Redwood approved “a strong Tory radical budget” (20 March), and it is doubtful if her regard for him ever matched that she held for Lawson. She read closely and with evident approval Lawson’s seminal Mais Lecture of June 1984, with its reassignment of the traditional roles of macro and microeconomic policy.

MT lunched with the Institute of Economic Affairs on 16 January. One might have expected this to be a pleasant enough engagement - constructive, perhaps even reassuring, a meal among friends - but clearly it was not. There were critics from the right who laid into her. Afterwards she exchanged letters with an embarrassed Brian Griffiths, a monetarist economist close to Alan Walters, who wrote to apologise.

As the lunch proceeded I became increasingly upset at the stridency of the criticism of the policies which you have implemented and the failure of those around the table to express any gratitude for your quite remarkable achievements. In my judgment it is not too strong to say that you have changed the face of British politics and set our economy in a totally different direction.

She replied: "It was a bit of a bumpy ride! Your words of support were greatly appreciated. It just isn't possible to do everything at once". Griffiths succeeded Redwood as head of her Policy Unit.

MT had a rather un-Thatcherite taste for grands projets. On 13 April 1984 she spent a happy day visiting Docklands in the company of Nigel Broackes, chairman of the London Docklands Development Corporation (and of Trafalgar House). Her Press Office had some reservations about the tour: Ingham’s deputy Romola Christopherson did a "rain-soaked and sketchy recce" on 28 March 1984 and concluded: "The programme is tight for time, heavy on mud, buildings and important people but light on human interest". But this surely missed the point. There was something very significant about Docklands and the definition of 'human interest' is pretty narrow if it excludes such things. And in press terms there is nothing wrong with a bit of mud, especially in close proximity to important people.

MT wrote to Broackes afterwards: “I meant every word of what I said about your personal contribution to this great enterprise. It could not have happened without you, and we are most grateful”. He got a knighthood that year.

By contrast, meetings with high finance in the City tended to produce a dutiful rather than enthusiastic response from MT. She lunched with Barings on 2 July, rejecting the view of her officials that she could not single out one bank – if she lunched with one, she would have to lunch with all. Her reply: “Alas - I think I should go. John Baring has been a good friend” (presumably she meant in relation to party funding). The engagement took the best part of a year to arrange. There is a briefing file for the meeting (29 Jun 1984) which has a significant defensive element, Barings feeling hard done by in relation to privatization work.

On 4 Oct 1984 MT had to work to keep Norman Tebbit onside in a dispute over public spending. One catches the whiff of resignation in the air, of high emotion, and this on the eve of the disaster he suffered at Brighton. Lawson made a point of getting on with Tebbit, but at this occasion the Chancellor needed help.

1984 jan-dec: the conservative party

It might seem strange to have a separate section on the Conservative Party in a page about MT, but at times in 1984 one senses a surprising degree of detachment between them. On one occasion she even put the words in inverted commas – as DT was wont to do when sacrificing yet another evening to some dismal event. But he wasn’t leader of the thing.  

There were disappointing local and European election results in May and June, which inevitably led to criticism of John Selwyn Gummer, her choice as party chairman following Cecil Parkinson. Gummer’s leadership style annoyed some at Central Office, most seriously perhaps Alistair McAlpine, one of MT’s favourites, (Sherbourne 14 Nov), and the party was also painfully short of cash. A “political cabinet” on 16 Feb 1984 showed the Conservatives embarrassingly reliant on European money to fund the pre-election phase of their European campaign, though it was perfectly legal to do so. Although Sir Geoffrey Howe drafted the Conservative manifesto, Prior still thought it too hostile to Europe (26 April).

The coal strike was an unavoidable conflict, fought eventually to a successful conclusion, but it was noticeably far short of a political triumph for the Conservatives, who might have expected to benefit more than they did, if only because Labour was so divided. Late in the year Ingham worked closely with a group chaired by the Lord President, Willie Whitelaw, which fastened on some of the reasons for this, especially the government’s “hard and uncaring reputation”. His role in this respect seems to have been questioned by the Head of Information at the DTI, Colette Bowe, who played an important part in the Westland affair the following year (see 3 Dec Ingham letter.) Ingham pointed out that one of the roots of that reputation was the fact that the government was assumed to be “an inveterate cutter of programmes” when in fact “far from cutting programmes, its overall achievement so far has been confined to holding public expenditure to planned levels”. He urged that credit be claimed rather than facts denied.

Local government was a persistent difficulty for the party in 1984, rate-capping and abolition of the GLC and Metropolitan Councils dividing Conservatives and pushing the issue to a prominent place on the parliamentary agenda. MT spent a lot of time in 1984 trying to placate local Conservative big-wigs, some of them not very big in fact; things were that bad, especially in London (Sherbourne minute 31 Oct 1984). Ingham was in no doubt how difficult it might all turn out to be. When she met local Conservative councillors on 9 Jan 1984 he told her it was the most important meeting of the day and great care was taken over press handling. Turnbull faithfully reported back (Sherbourne note, 9 Apr 1984) when two Conservative MPs were overheard in a Commons corridor after the announcement about the abolition of ILEA saying “you will live to regret this”.

Had there not been a coal strike, it is possible that the politics of 1984 would have been dominated by the confrontation between the government and Militant-dominated councils like Liverpool and Sheffield, Kinnock’s Labour facing the same essential dilemma it did with Scargill - how to distance itself from dangerous associates. One of the themes of the planned conference speech abandoned due to the Brighton Bomb was the deliberate pursuit of unlawful policies by the ultra-left, a sub-plot only because Scargill was already cast as lead villain. Indeed there was frank discussion during the summer as to the desirability of turning one of Labour/Militant’s local government leading lights such as Derek Hatton or Ted Knight into a “public anti-hero” (Redwood-Letwin minute, 5 Jul 1984). Letwin generally took the lead on local government issues (see also Lewtin Dec 1984 minutes).

MT had always been suspicious and critical of “Special Advisers” (SPADs), even thinking their existence a "sign of weakness" in a minister, but they were coming to play a larger and larger role in Westminster politics, and she can be seen unbending a little towards them during 1984, under the influence of Stephen Sherbourne, her new Political Secretary, who arranged a meeting between SPADs and the PM. A little nervous perhaps, Sherbourne sent the Prime Minister two memoranda on how to handle this vital event (11 Jan): should they all sit in a circle? Yes - but then again perhaps better not, “even to begin with”, in case the SPADs were all too shy and she ended up doing all the talking. Drinks should be served. After the Brighton Bomb there were lengthy discussions about buying life insurance for SPADs in case one was killed in the line of duty.

One of the most promising special advisers was elected MP for Enfield Southgate at the end of the year following the death of Tony Berry in the Brighton Bomb. Michael Portillo received strong support from his boss, Norman Tebbit (5 Dec), who was still confined to hospital by his injuries, MT following his lead and receiving a polite and slightly formal thank you letter from Portillo.

Sir Keith Joseph created big problems for the government at the end of the year over student grants. A painful climbdown proved necessary; Letwin minute 2 Dec 1984 relates.

1984 jan-mar: the oman-cementation controversy

MT’s family were brought into political controversy by an article in the Observer on Sunday 15 January, effectively accusing her of influence-peddling to help secure a contract for a British firm, Cementation, in Oman and thereby win a commission for her son. As luck would have it, she was being interviewed live that day on television by Brian Walden, whose producer rang Ingham to warn that he would be obliged to raise the story. Ingham recognised that it was unavoidable and urged that she should agree with Walden in advance to deal with it as the first item of business and then move on (Ingham 13 Jan minute). That was indeed the approach.

Labour of course pursued the story in the Commons. MT was appalled and indignantly repudiated the charge. Her private papers register her anger – in letters to John Vaizey (12 March) and John Hunt (4 Apr), both of whom wrote sympathising – but the documents tell us little more. The main file on the topic was released by the National Archives in January.

There is also reference to Oman in a minute written on 30 Mar 1984 by Ingham on plans for her fifth anniversary as PM, successfully persuading her to make a statement specifically tailored to the Sunday lobby: "The idea, after Mark/Oman, of forcing the Observer, Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday to serve your purpose for a change may appeal to you as much as it does to me".

1984 Jan-Mar: life at no.10 - war of the parliamentary private secretaries & diary angst

Ian Gow had become Minister of Housing after the 1983 General Election, but he missed Downing Street, and according to Alan Clark’s diary, plotted to return by promoting the idea that MT should create a new Prime Ministerial department to beef up No.10, with him as her ministerial assistant, in cabinet. This idea had been hanging around for some years, generally promoted by frustrated Thatcher loyalists, ostensibly to improve her control of the official machine but also to check some of her own faults, as they saw them, an exercise in "saving her from herself". MT was cautious of it - never much attracted to constitutional innovation (of which she had seen too much, to little effect, under Heath), perhaps aware also of some of the critical subtext.

Gow’s replacement as MT's Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS), Michael Alison, was widely regarded as lacklustre and unclubbable, but speedily enough understood that he was under attack, a fact rendered hard to miss by the fact that the plotters promoted their idea in the press (see for example Marcia Falkender's column in the Mail on Sunday, 22 Jan 1984 and Peter Riddell's article in the Financial Times, 21 Feb 1984). After the first of these Alison went to see the Chief Whip, promising that he was taking a more active House of Commons role now that he had had time to master life at No.10 (Alison minute 23 Jan 1984).

Not content with this, Alison drafted a long speech on the subject and circulated it in advance around No.10 (8 Mar 1984), suggesting sadly that mastery was some way off. He proposed to defend MT, Downing Street and himself from the critics, refuting charges that the Prime Minister had retreated into a bunker and that her staff had changed radically for the worse since the election. The problems with such a defence were obvious - qui s'excuse, s'accuse - and Ingham predictably expressed reservations. MT duly killed off the speech, telling Alison kindly, and somehow all the more damningly for that, that he had done a “fantastic amount of research”, but that his words would be seen as coming from her and Conservative backbenchers wouldn't like it. She did accept an invitation to Sunday lunch at his home in London later in the year, smoothing things over a bit. But she might reasonably have hoped for better from her own PPS, and indeed from his predecessor. It is hard to believe that Alison was doing very much useful for her at all, for all his bravery, decency and Christian conviction, and his own frustration is plain enough.

The Prime Ministerial Department did not come about, but David Young’s appointment in September 1984 as Minister without Portfolio seems to have owed something to the plotting.

MT was warned against encouraging a “cult of personality” by her own diary secretary when she was invited to open an old people’s home in Dartford named “Thatcher Court” (Ryder minute 18 Nov 1983). Caroline Ryder’s battles to protect Prime Ministerial time from pilfering usually ran up against stern resistance from the person she was trying to shield. The reply on this occasion was quite forceful: "I stood for Dartford in 1950 & 1951. My husband's old firm was in the constituency. There are reasons why I should say yes. MT"

1984 Apr-Oct: flower power

On 4 April 1984, No.10 received a letter from the Foreign Office headed “German Proposal to Name a Rose in Honour of the Prime Minister”. The FCO commended it because the Germans were major contributors to the Liverpool Garden Festival later in the year.

The thing looked innocent enough. After Ingham gave the idea his blessing (“This naming of a rose after someone famous is fairly familiar stuff”), the German Central Horticultural Association was offered an appointment at Downing Street at 3pm, Thursday 30 August. MT opted to give the visitors a “proper tea” (as opposed to a cup) and marked approvingly a memorandum about the rose that described it as “Standing on strong stems. Very long-lasting”. She was, as usual, somewhat over briefed, learning for example that the breeding firm was established at Elmshorn near Hamburg in 1887 but that in 1919 it relocated to “Sparrieshoop near Elmshorn, where it remains”.

A whole delegation of Germans attended the event, headed by the Chargé d’Affaires, the FRG Consul-General in Liverpool, their Agricultural Counsellor, the Commissioner-General for the German section of the International Garden Festival, a representative of the German Central Horticultural Association, as well as the man who actually bred the rose, Herr Kordes. We fielded a similarly top-heavy team headed by Lord Aberconway who was running the Garden Festival - everything but a brass band. The press were there in force, TV, still photographers and newspaper journalists, all to record a rare and touching moment of Anglo-German sunshine. We even have a tape of it in the Thatcher archive, courtesy of the COI, which didn’t bother to keep their recording of the Bruges speech but kept this. The story went round the world, the kind of fluffy thing which gladdens the hard hearts of press officers and PR people everywhere.

Then there was a problem. If there is no such thing as a free lunch, risk free PR stunts are almost as rare. This one succeeded too well. Even in Japan there was news of the German rose, and an account duly appeared in the Daily Yoniuri of 1 September 1984 where it was seen by the English friend of a Japanese rosebreeder, a Mr Takatori. The friend wrote to No.10 pointing out with wounded dignity that Mr Takatori had already created a "Margaret Thatcher Rose" and suggesting that the Germans had made a "spurious claim". The true rose had been named in 1978 with MT’s written permission (he helpfully sent a photocopy of the letter) and bunches of the flowers had been in her rooms at the Tokyo G7 in June 1979. It seems MT herself had completely forgotten.

After struggling to find an explanation that would reflect credit on everyone, even examining photos of the roses (were they the same? would it be good or bad if they were?), No.10 began to suspect that rules might have been broken somewhere. The Press Office decided it would be best “to adopt a position of all innocence” while fine minds in the FCO were sent off to look deeply into it, lawyers at their side. Finally a long letter was produced for No.10 by a young diplomat named Peter Ricketts. (He is now Sir Peter Ricketts GCVO GCMG, former head of the FCO, Chairman of the JIC, National Security Adviser, current UK Ambassador to France.) After studying the records of the Plant Varieties Rights Office, one of the obscurer bits of Britain's quangocracy, Ricketts pronounced the Germans technically in the clear but ‘disingenuous’, although he warned No.10 to avoid saying so. The lawyers seem to have worried the Japanese and Germans might sue each other over the naming of a rose in honour of the British Prime Minister. We could get dragged in. It wouldn't be the first time.

And so, a week after MT survived the Brighton Bomb, Charles Powell despatched a skilfully drafted letter of placation and evasion to the distant hills of the Okayama Prefecture, which among other things reported that MT recalled the Takatori rose with pleasure and thought it a 'masterpiece'. Perhaps she had indeed now remembered, or maybe not. Either way Powell's letter took the trick. Everything went quiet.

The French also used flowers and plants in their diplomacy, but they had a simpler, safer and more cost effective technique: they just bought some and sent them along, Roland Dumas winning high marks for a gift of orchids. The Italians were more original in their gifts, President Pertini giving MT shoes from Porto d’Ascoli and Prime Minister Craxi a brooch which drew from MT a shy little joke, writing to thank him "for the beautiful ladybird, which I hope will never ‘fly away home’ - though perhaps it will pay a visit home at our next meeting". 

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