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Release of MT's private files for 1987 - (2) the election campaign

There was a strong Conservative performance in the local elections. MT's decision to call the General Election was made after a ministerial meeting at Chequers on 10 May and announced to the cabinet and then the public the following morning, Monday 11 May.

May-Jun 1987: CAMPAIGN

Housewife superstar
MT is briefed on prices in the shops, just in case someone asks ...

Although the files on the election are extensive, they have an incomplete character. For example, we have nothing very useful on the actual decision to call the election, and many other important episodes and especially meetings pass undocumented. One can only point to interesting fragments of the story, with the caveat of incompleteness always in mind.

MT’s speech to the annual Scottish Conservative conference fell between the election announcement and the publication of the Conservative manifesto. She scribbled on the bottom of her speaking text some breaking news she thought would encourage the troops: “Royal Assent to the Bill was given this morning. It is now the Domestic Rates (Scotland) Act”.

Some election trivia:

  • One finds a quaint reminder of how technology has changed in No.10 guidance on MT’s election tour where it was explained that the Garden Room Girl accompanying her - her link to No.10 since Private Office staff did not participate in party tours - should never be more than 10 minutes from a phone at any point
  • MT was given an aide-memoire of prices in the shops (image inset on this page), presumably in case someone on the stump asked her the price of a pint of milk (24p) or the like, a necessary if absurd precaution for a female Prime Minister who no longer had much time for shopping. It is interesting that her staff thought she needed to be told that Chum was a kind of dog food (32p) - even that the Sun was a newspaper (18p), a point on which she needed no tuition one would hope.
  • MT made a flying visit to the Venice G7 during the campaign (as she had to the Williamsburg summit in 1983). Arriving at the Gritti Hotel she found many gifts of flowers, for which (faultlessly polite about such things) she sent thank you notes. One other gift was there, perhaps in its way more appropriate to the occasion – a decanter, doubtless appropriately filled, from Carla Thorneycroft, the former party chairman’s Italian wife who had seen a few elections close up.
  • MT’s relations with the press were not at their best during the campaign, but she was touched by a kind gesture from Jonathan Margolis, then with the Mail on Sunday. She dropped a favourite scarf at the floor of the NEC in Birmingham and realising the loss as she got back on her campaign bus, thought she would never see it again. Margolis picked the scarf up and politely returned it to her at No.10 with a note saying he had resisted the temptation to auction it for the NUJ’s widows and orphans fund. She sent him a warm letter of thanks.

There are two important unsigned minutes for MT which were surely written from within No.10, or just possibly the higher reaches of Central Office or even the world of broadcasting - some place which should have disqualified the author from commenting or made it difficult. They have a flavour of Bernard Ingham, but he remembers nothing of them and doubts his authorship, particularly of the second. Perhaps clinching evidence will come to hand at some point:

  • The first on 25 May, titled simply "Election: An Analysis", gave a big raspberry to Kinnock’s much vaunted “Chariots of Fire” Party Election Broadcast, describing it “as either stunningly brilliant or unspeakably nauseating, according to individual taste or background”. In case we were in any doubt as to the author’s view on the point, he went on to describe Labour as having “a campaign strategy which combines cult of the personality (however artificially presented by the film makers) with a scare a day”. However, the essence of the memo was not comforting, and clearly nor meant to be – he found much fault with the Conservative campaign, especially the “self-indulgent bickering” about Central Office, the poorly run morning press conferences, and the lack of attacking zeal (“for God’s sake let’s have some exuberance – after all there are so many Socialist Aunt Sallies out there to hit that we should be having all the fun of the Eatanswill Fair”)
  • The second minute is dated, 29 May, and relates to the first in its title, "The Election: Analysis II". It sketches a plan of attack for the last two weeks of the campaign, noting the government’s 12 point lead - despite “a poor start” - and urging that it would soon because necessary “to decide when it has milked enough of defence”, in which the press was losing interest. Where then to develop the argument? The author was sharp and clear in his prescriptions: “The aim should be to destroy Labour’s claim to be the caring party which its “Chariots of Fire” commercials are designed to achieve. The way into this subject is Kinnock’s determination to revert to 1970s trade union law, including secondary picketing. This exposes Socialist caring as a sham”.

Some opinion polls at the end of May showed Conservative leads over Labour shrinking. We glimpse MT at a meeting on the evening of 29 May with David Young and Tim Bell echoing the advice to go after Labour. She was warned though to be careful not to talk of Labour extremists, for fear the public would think them an insignificant minority, and specifically told by Sherbourne not to use the phrase “the looney left”. Nails were being well-bitten at this point. It is interesting to find No.10 asking Central Office to send MT batches of supportive messages they had received from the public. One letter came from an 11 year old girl in Fife who sent MT her 50p pocket money to pay for petrol on the campaign bus and said her father had told her: “If that great Pillock, Kinnock gets in were off to Canada!”

On 3 June a poll for The Times put Labour only four points behind, ushering in the infamous “Wobbly Thursday” (4 Jun). We have only one significant document from that day, unfortunately also unsigned, the authorship of which has so far eluded us. It perhaps derives from someone at Saatchis – internal evidence suggests an author whose first language was ad-speak, and it seems to be written from their side of the argument, perhaps as the basis for an oral presentation. Its main interest lies in the fact that it traces a general slide in the Conservative position over the whole campaign, not focused on a single – and as it turned out, rogue - poll. One can see a little better why they were all so spooked.

7-10 Jun 1987: BATTLING THE BROADCASTERS

MT had a particularly bad experience with television interviews during the campaign. She much resented her treatment by Robin Day on BBC1's Panorama on 7 June, whose line of questioning even now seems surprisingly one-sided, a transcript of which you can read here. She wrote to Sir John Junor after the election:

Thank you for your letter about my Panorama interview – it was so kind of you to write. All the interviews I had seemed to me to be more belligerent, more discourteous, more insulting than any I ever remember – and I have been through a lot!

Robin Day later tried to make it up with her, after a fashion, grandly inviting her that summer to some sort of journalistic lunch at the Garrick with Peter Jenkins, but this was an invitation she found easy to resist.

It wasn’t only Panorama. Rather different, and even worse, was her interview with David Dimbleby for BBC1 on eve of poll. This time she was more the author of her own misfortune, making a serious, conceivably fatal, gaffe, the kind of comment that might have been hung around her neck the way “Rejoice, rejoice” or “No such thing as society” has been. For some reason, it did not quite achieve that status, but it surely had the potential. Dimbleby had asked her about social division and caring - she never said she cared. After an exchange of mutual interruptions, MT replied:

MT: Please. If people just drool and drivel they care, I turn round and say "Right. I also look to see what you actually do"
DAVID DIMBLEBY: Why do you use the words “drool and drivel that they care”? Is that what you think saying that you care about people's plight amounts to?
MT: No, I don't [MT pauses] I'm sorry I used those words. But I think some people talk a great deal about caring, but the policies which they pursue—and I'm sorry I used those words—the policies which they pursue do not amount to what they say.

MT’s old friend Ralph Harris at the IEA watched the interview and seems to have thought it might be fatal to her chances. He began writing her a letter as the election results programmes started, “tormented with a single doubt, if you should be cheated of an outstandingly deserved, personal triumph, it will be due above all to single malignancy: the difficulty/impossibility of defending the incurable deficiencies of nationalised ‘free’ health care against the reckless promises of Labour/Alliance make-belief that another 1 or 2 per cent on their budgets would provide a miracle cure. …” He pronounced himself determined that “you (or others) should never again be exposed to the kind of (lethal) cross-examination with which David Dimbleby sought to prosecute you on television last night”. Of course, as the results came in, his perspective altered. There is a handwritten postscript: “V Day 4am. CONGRATULATIONS on an almost unbelievable victory”. The word ‘lethal’ had the brackets added in pen probably as an after-thought.

Perhaps the immediate retraction saved her from having to live with endless taunting over “drool and drivel” in later years. It is hard to find anything quite like this exchange in the whole body of her public rhetoric (which amounted to more than 14m words by end 1990) and her feelings about it were correspondingly high. She sent only a brief reply to Ralph Harris, but when a woman correspondent wrote to her after the election complaining that Robin Day and David Dimbleby had tried to bully her, and calling them ‘twerps’, MT replied warmly and added a handwritten postscript. “And thank you for your comments on TV interviewers. From that point of view, this was the most difficult election I have ever had”.

Selection of documents mentioned on this page

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