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Release of MT's private files for 1986 - (5) Life at No.10

Westland made a huge, traumatic impact on No.10 during 1986, but there were cross-currents and even a few lighter moments.

Apr 1986: Sundays are special

To reverse or not to reverse? Test driving the Rover 800

Immediately after Westland MT hankered for a return to normal politics. Does the Shops Bill qualify? The Bill was a government measure to liberalise the law on Sunday trading in England and Wales, already widely defied in practice. It upset, even enraged, a dangerously wide constituency ranging from religious and cultural conservatives, mainly on the right, to opponents of any kind of labour market reform, trade unionists to the fore and principally on the left.

We release the files of MT’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, Michael Alison, a pious Anglican who became a Church Estates Commissioner after he left No.10. He wrote to MT on 4 Mar seeking “informal license to abstain on a few votes in this critical area”, by which he meant Third Reading and Report. He was prepared to support the Second Reading (ie, the vote in principle on the Bill). The Chief Whip also contributed a breakdown of opinion within the government as a whole, undated but listed here by guess as 14 April. It is a very unusual thing to get a snapshot of that kind on any topic: if only we had more. It shows majorities against the Bill at every level in government, (10:12 against in cabinet, but 9:38 against at the lowest level of Parliamentary Secretary).

Alison did not need to abstain, because the legislation was lost outright on Second Reading on 15 April, the only time during the whole Thatcher era that a government bill went down to defeat in this way and only the second time since 1924. No fewer than 72 Conservative MPs voted against their own side.

The embarrassment might have been much greater had the US raid on Tripoli supplied a distraction: the American F-111s were in the air as voting took place. That evening MT attended a booklaunch at The Economist to honour the completion of Norman St John Stevas’s edition of Walter Bagehot and received commiserations from him afterwards referring to the “infuriating denouement over the Sunday shops bill”, noting also her ability to focus on the task at hand, in this case praising a former colleague’s book (file 1/3/20).

Managing the media: Press barons & editors

Bernard Ingham began the year in a memorably difficult way, and predictably enough his troubles continued. During Westland Heseltine had achieved a surprising level of support within the Conservative press, including the Express and the Mail. Relations with the Express improved by year end. There was a quiet dinner with the chairman and editors on 2 July (Addison minute 19 Jun) and a helpful interview after the party conference. Ingham minuted her on 17 Oct, explaining that the editor was keen to do everything he could to maintain her post-conference momentum. “You can relax, speak confidently and try to get over what a caring person you are about your country and her people, youth, children and unemployed”.

But if anything the Mail became steadily more at odds with the government, and with MT personally. Her relationship with the paper’s owner, Lord Rothermere, never recovered from the Mail on Sunday’s 23 March story alleging that she had had dubious dealings in Australian mining shares. When she was interviewed the following day by Geoffrey Smith of The Times the first eight pages of the transcript were taken up by an angry off the record defence which we release now. Lord Harris wrote caustically to Rothermere on her behalf inviting him to withdraw the accusations and apologise, copied to her, and received a letter of thanks hoping he would get “a satisfactory reply” (MT to Harris, 1 Apr).

Relations with the Telegraph were also scratchy in 1986. At one level all seemed well - Bill Deedes retired, and was given a fine send-off at a private dinner in No.10 with MT delivering a memorably good tongue-in-cheek speech quoting a source even closer to the Prime Minister than the usual one (i.e., DT rather than Ingham, Private Eye's "Dear Bill" letters being a spoof correspondence between DT and Deedes). Conrad Black acquired the paper and plainly was an admirer, by contrast with the Hartwells with whom MT had never been at ease (see Powell minute, 16 Jul in file 1/16/22). However, Deedes’ successor as editor, Max Hastings, proved difficult from her point of view. Almost his first act was to warn her that “that we shall irritate you rather more often than in the past, for instance on the Landrover issue” (Hastings letter, 12 Mar in 1/3/20). She lunched at the Telegraph on 14 Oct, at Hastings’ invitation, and Ingham set the scene in a minute the day before:

You welcomed the invitation because of the Daily Telegraph’s political waywardness under Mr Hasting’s [sic] editorship. Peregrine Worsthorne, by contrast, is a staunch supporter and it is common gossip that Conrad Black thinks more highly of the Sunday than the Daily Telegraph.

In fact only the Murdoch papers were reliably supportive in 1986, a position likely influenced of course by News International’s move to Wapping. Personal relations between MT and the proprietor look to have been warm at this point – see MT to Murdoch 22 Jan following his visit to Chequers in January, effectively a thank you letter for his thank you, and a casual note by MT regarding an invitation to dinner with Woodrow Wyatt, who asked did she want anyone else to come? “Is Rupert Murdoch in London?” (Ryder minute, 14 Oct, the very day of the Telegraph lunch).

There is little in MT’s files on the topic of the Parliamentary Lobby which became a subject of controversy in 1986 when the newly launched Independent refused to join it and the Guardian pulled out. MT in fact attempted some outreach to the left – giving Hugo Young a long interview on South Africa (time he used well) and also speaking at length on Channel 4 News at the end of the UK’s EC Presidency, acknowledging that the programme had covered the event better than any other British media outlet.

Aug-Dec 1986: Personal health, moving house

MT had a hand operation in summer 1986 to correct a rare condition she happened to share with Ronald Reagan, Dupuytren’s Contracture. She went on holiday to Cornwall immediately afterwards, giving Austria a miss in what was likely to be the last summer before the next election. More painful and difficult seems to have been an injury she suffered at the beginning of the Conservative Conference in Bournemouth when she tripped over a manhole cover. She politely wrote to the Mayor on 7 Oct apologising for pulling out of the Civic Ball that evening: “As you may have heard I tripped over one of Bournemouth’s manholes this afternoon and my ankle didn't like it very much. Neither did the manhole!”. (Quite how the manhole cover can have come off badly is hard to say. Perhaps party officials came round afterwards and did it harm. History does not record whether Jeremy Corbyn has yet captured this particular one in his famous collection of manhole cover photos.) Photographer Sally Soames took many shots of her delivering her conference speech later that week, tiring herself with heavy long lenses, so got a good close view of her face. She wrote to Ingham later that night:

I have seen during the time she hurt her ankle how painful it was – & I do not know how she managed to stand during her speech. … She has more energy in her little finger than I have in my whole body.

MT’s appointment diary shows that she had to have extensive physiotherapy following the injury, no fewer than nine long appointments being scheduled, the shortest 30 minutes, the longest over an hour. And in fact her appointment diary subtly suggests a slowing down that year, perhaps related to the operation and injury. Time was set aside before a minor engagement on 18 December (“Change if tired”) and on 29 August at Chequers we read “2300 Went to bed”. The diary generally did not record her bedtime, and famously 2300 was not it.

The Thatchers bought a house in Dulwich during 1986, selling their old home in Flood Street and giving up the tenancy of the flat at Scotney that DT particularly loved (and sometimes called ‘home’). There were long weekends of houseclearing during the late summer – we release some of MT’s jottings for the move (22 Aug) – all taking place precisely over the period of the the hand operation and accident, adding to the physical pressure. MT spent only two nights at Dulwich that year, not suggestive of a happy experience. She turned on the Christmas lights in Dulwich High Street, and the file on the event has all the trappings of a small state occasion. It is hard to think she was ever going to fit in.

Jul 1986: A Tale of Two Cities, or one City and a nationalised industry

In July MT, ever the saleswoman for all things British, cheerfully gave her time to two engagements on successive days which in their way tell one something about Britain at the time, and her. On Thursday 10 July she test drove the new Rover 800 in Downing Street. Her chief official at No.10, Nigel Wicks, gave a somewhat cynical assessment of the proposal: “Worthwhile, if she would do it, to demonstrate ‘we still love Leyland’”.

There were predictable worries. Ingham remembered a previous Rover test drive when the firm had delivered a red car. It was explained that a more suitable colour would be preferred. No.10 looks to have worried that her driving skills were perhaps not that fresh, perhaps had never been that great, and so a quiet rehearsal was arranged at Chequers. The car was towed down under cover behind a Range Rover and afterwards she showed the designers around the house.

But how ambitious should the public test drive be? Officials being officials, they devised options. She could do a simple drive from one end of Downing Street to the other, or attempt a trickier manoeuvre that involved reversing. Famously Tony Blair had no reverse gear, but in fact MT had no problem with reversing and so – possibly buoyed up by the Chequers test drive, or goaded by the notion that her officials thought she couldn’t handle it – she opted for the more ambitious plan. And she pulled it off flawlessly.

Nothing is perfect of course. No.10 struggled to kill a press story that she was going to be given the test drive car, and Rover itself made a cackhanded attempt to sell her a discounted car under a “VIP Preferential Purchase Scheme”, which arrived by letter on 28 April. Somehow she resisted the urge to buy a Maestro on the cheap.

Her next engagement was in the City, on Friday 11 July, to open the newest phase of the vast Broadgate development next to Liverpool Street Station. She had visited the the site in 1985, but had no problem going back to celebrate the completion within a single year of 720,000 of hi-tech office space, an impressive achievement by any measure. Officials at No.10 were less keen, detecting pushiness in the developers, caustically noting their “characteristic modesty” (lunch was provided for 2,000 guests) and the “patent absurdity” of their proposal that MT should help interest US investors in their scheme when next she visited the country. (Rover tried to sell MT a discounted car, they tried to get her to help them sell skyscrapers to New York.)

There is no sign in fact that she minded any of that: par for the course. But one thing did grate with her. The developers were insistent she travel the two and a half miles from Downing Street by helicopter. As a well-dressed, fiscally prudent, middle-aged female Prime Minister with elaborately maintained hair, MT had an instinctive wariness of helicopters - expensive, noisy, dirty things that made a big show of your importance and messed things up on the ground too (pity the 2,000 guests). With Westland only just in the rearview mirror, it is hardly likely she had recently grown any fonder of them. It can't have helped that they wanted her to use use a French helicopter as well. She turned it down flat:

It is ridiculous for me to go by helicopter. It would look like (& be) unwarrantable extravagance and I should be criticised severely.

Not easily put off, the developers had a fallback: perhaps she would wear a shiny hard hat that could catch the reflection of a model helicopter, for the photographer? Would that work?

No, it wouldn't.

I really don't want ‘gimmicks’ to apply to me. An ordinary hard hat. MT

What is it about men and helicopters? She would have been entitled to wonder.

How did it turn out? She arrived quietly by car. The press photos showed her on a mobile crane, in a white hard hat, excitedly manoeuvring a half ton block of granite. No safe option there, think of all the financiers she could have crushed in their finery. And all to celebrate the City's biggest building project since the Great Fire, as the developer modestly described it, costing half as much again as the whole M25 - and not a penny of it from the government.

Perfect.

 

 

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