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Release of MT's private files for 1987 - (3) beginning the the third term

The election result was emphatic, indeed unanswerable: the Conservatives won a majority of 102. No Prime Minister in anyone's lifetime had achieved anything comparable.

And yet the manner of her victory - especially the anxieties of the campaign as seen by those closest to her - somehow undercut it. Outwardly triumphant, MT was more vulnerable than she looked. Her papers show how swiftly this fact was brought home to her.

AFTER THE ELECTION: CONGRATULATIONS & RECRIMINATIONS

Charles Powell's letter
"I hope you will not put yourself through it again ..."

After her 1983 victory MT had decided not to contrive a second St Francis moment on the doorstep of Downing Street. In 1987 she again chose to underplay the event, making her first public remarks after the result became clear halfway up a staircase in Central Office, an odd choice. This was when she talked of the need to do something for the Inner Cities. We release the handwritten notes she made for those remarks (curiously, she misspelled Norman Tebbit’s surname) and Ingham’s thoughts on what to say also, written on election day itself, judging from the date.

When it became apparent that the result was another decisive Conservative victory, the congratulations began to land on her desk in predictable style. There are few obvious standouts in the mass of these. Reagan rang and wrote. She heard from all the major Western leaders, including many with whom she was on rather poor terms such as Delors and Chirac. This was a moment for insincerity. A rogues’ gallery of African dictators wrote, men for whom a contested election was a wholly theoretical concept and seven years in office but the twinkling of an eye, such as President Bongo of Gabon. There were the usual suspects on the ideological left – Mengistu, Castro, Ortega – and similar lovelies on the right – Pinochet, Botha and Nixon. All got polite replies, naturally. (Incidentally the late Roger Ailes, who helped to build Fox for Rupert Murdoch, was offered to No.10 prior to the campaign as available to consult at a very reasonable rate, but Sherbourne ruled that Nixonians such as he need not apply.) Quite the oddest letter of congratulation came from Dr John Murray, an old Gaitskellite and family friend from Lytham St Annes who had sometimes entertained the Thatchers at his other home in the south of France. “The Tory campaign was awful”, he wrote, “touching bottom on the eve of the Poll with that televised adoration-of-the-leader-with-musical-accompaniment which made the toes of your friends curl with embarrassment and caused your enemies to fall about laughing”. MT sent him a smiling reply. She liked John Murray.

Victory, famously, has many fathers. But this one - if not exactly an orphan - found its parents in shorter supply than might have been expected. Post mortems were commissioned in Central Office and No.10 almost as if there had been a defeat. In the long series of Thatcher files on the election, the last document is an informal review of it all by David Willetts, formerly of the No.10 Policy Unit who had seen things close up at Central Office. His criticisms are devastating. In truth, many Conservatives felt the result might have been very different, that she – and they - had been lucky. Several people later claimed to have made the remark at this time that MT would never fight another General Election, which of course was prescient – if they actually said it.

At least one person definitely did say it, or said something on those lines. On 13 June MT found a letter on the study desk from her closest official, Charles Powell, the man in her immediate circle who understood her best and had the fullest measure of her trust. Although written in the first person, he signed it also from his glamorous Italian wife Carla who had become close to MT as well. The letter repays reading in full. After congratulating MT on her remarkable election victory, he went on:

All the same I hope that you will not put yourself through it again. The level of personal abuse thrown at you during the campaign was unbelievable and must take some toll, however stoic you are outwardly. There comes a point when your reputation and standing as a historic figure are more important to your party, to your cause and to the country than even you yourself can be, and its not right that you should be subjected to a further round like this time. I fear that, because the left know that they cannot defeat you on substance, they will only redouble this abuse over the next few years. In two or three years time, you will have completed the most sweeping change this country has seen in decades and your place in history will be rivalled in this century only by Churchill. That's the time to contribute in some other area!

There is perhaps no more striking letter in the whole of the Thatcher Archive. I showed Lord Powell a copy several weeks ago in London and he made the following comment:

I had actually forgotten writing the letter until Charles Moore cited it in his biography of Margaret Thatcher. It’s an unusual letter for a civil servant to send a Prime Minister even on a very personal basis, reflecting the small size and intimacy of No 10 especially in those days. I had been distressed to observe at close quarters the stress of a third election campaign and the back-biting it involved on Margaret Thatcher’s health and performance and wanted to discourage her in her own interests from any inclination to go “on and on”.

We discussed the letter. Her main reaction was there was as yet no suitable successor to her, though several who thought they were. As far as I remember she did not comment either way on a fourth term. In the light of subsequent events my advice to her looks pretty sound.

AFTER THE ELECTION: RESHUFFLE

Inevitably a reshuffle followed. At the beginning of a new Parliament one might have expected some significant changes – after the 1983 election all three major offices of state had new occupants – but in fact it was one of the less extensive of the Thatcher era. Perhaps not coincidentally we have very few documents about it. Chief Whip John Wakeham sent MT his recommendations before the general election, but was muted on cabinet changes, perhaps because he was obviously expecting to move into the cabinet himself and could hardly talk up his own prospects. His discussion of possible leadership candidates is the most interesting thing about the memo, first, that he thought it wise to raise the matter at all, and second that Baker was “the only serious contender in my view”, aside from Howe. That judgment will have confirmed MT’s determination not to create a vacancy. She probably did not need to be warned against leaving Walker outside the government, nor to be told that Heseltine would likely refuse a job if offered, because no offer was going to be made.

The upshot was that the three big offices kept their occupants – Howe, Lawson and Hurd – although she was unhappy with all of them in various ways. Hurd was the only one of the three to write a thank you it seems. In effect, despite winning an unprecedented third term, MT was not able or willing to impose a new shape on the government. It cannot have helped that while Tebbit resigned from the government, he chose to remain for the while as chairman of the Party, prolonging the agony, the whole wearisome Saatchi-Tebbit-Young saga running on and on even after the election was over. At Central Office on election night MT had praised his leadership of what she charitably called the “engine room of victory”, so there was little she could do about it. Central Office morale was evidently very low. There is much post-election correspondence about Tebbit’s eventual departure after the party conference in October, including a second exchange of published resignation letters within months. It was tricky to find anything fresh to say. MT favoured David Young to replace him, but the heavy political pressure arising from City issues after the Guinness Affair made it difficult for a Trade and Industry Secretary to occupy the chairmanship (with its fundraising side) and Young eventually ruled himself out rather than give up his department, or part of it. (Paul Channon himself left the government.) Peter Brooke was eventually appointed as chairman, as a stopgap till closer to the next election though there was obviously a case for making a big name appointment.

Constraints applied even to secondary offices. The Lord Chancellor, Quintin Hailsham, finally relinquished the Woolsack, but in his place she felt she had no choice but to appoint the Attorney-General, Sir Michael Havers. A curious constitutional convention existed that the Attorney-General had first refusal for the job, but Havers had been ill, and was at odds with her: he was not her appointment of choice and was gone within the year. (Wakeham also points out she would be criticised by the great and good for appointing him at all.) Cecil Parkinson returned and certainly that pleased her - MT wrote delightedly on the topic in a private letter, commenting that he was “very able” - but a retread appointment so long trailed created no great interest and brought no new strength to the government.

In the longer run, probably the most significant appointment was that of John Major as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Wakeham had thought of him as a possible Chief Whip, and it does not diminish Major to suggest that he would have been a good one - his ascent to the very top might still have happened, but by a different route. Had he become Chief Whip, it is likely he would have stayed there for some years, perhaps the whole Parliament, and would not have emerged as a successor to MT in 1990. It seems that Nigel Lawson requested him and so changed the course of political history. There is further evidence of Prime Ministerial favour after the election. She asked the party chairman that Major (among others) be given a chance to speak at the party conference – Tebbit wrote saying he could not find him a spot – and he was invited to a lunch of colleagues in July (with his boss, Lawson, as the fallback if he couldn’t come). Finally, on Boxing Day the Majors were among the guests for lunch at Chequers, along with the Howes, the Archers, Michael Caine, etc – a mark of his new standing.

One person she fired outright was her PPS, Michael Alison, who wrote her an anguished letter, painful to read, complaining at this "shattering blow". He had expected to go on to a ministerial office, as his predecessor had done (and all but one of his successors). In his place she appointed Archie Hamilton, a far more upbeat presence. A tiny instance of the new style can be found in a note he wrote her in November, passing on a choice bit of gossip from the tabloids. She had asked Hamilton whatever happened to David Brown, the one-time owner of Aston Martin? Answer: he had found a wife 47 years his junior. It is often said by people who didn’t know MT (or like her) that she lacked humour, but the truth is that while she rarely cracked a joke, and simply missed many altogether, she loved being made to laugh.

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