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Release of MT's private files for 1983 - (2) the General Election


MT approached the election in cautious style. She did all she could to damp down election speculation, without much success, took pains with every detail - and refused to count chickens. She was blessed with opponents who fell over themselves to be helpful.

1982-83: planning the 1983 campaign

Election fever

Election files released today cover 1982 and 1983; they are bulky, but there are many gaps. Really we have only telling fragments from the planning of the election and the campaign itself. There is almost no record of decision-making in these files.

The first step was in July 1982 when Howe was given the role of coordinating the manifesto, immediately after the Falklands War. But nothing in the papers suggests that any thought was given to a “khaki election”, crudely cashing in on the victory; serious work on the manifesto and other aspects of election planning only really began late in 1982, in unhurried style. When Central Office shared its thinking with No.10 in Nov 1982 (Boddy minute, 12 Nov 1982), Gow favoured conventional approaches, unsurprisingly given that the party was well ahead in the polls - “The Prime Minister and her team” (trying to avoid looking ‘presidential’), “She's made a first class start - now let her finish the job” (purposeful continuity). She should do perhaps five or six rallies around the country, all ticketed and filled with party supporters. Exposure to “rent-a-mob crowds” would be avoided, in less friendly parts of the world she might do regional broadcasting, for example.

The plan denied MT close involvement in the drafting of the manifesto until the final stages, which caused friction, Gow and Parkinson finding themselves on the receiving end of Prime Ministerial ire on the point (Gow minute to MT, 28 March). There is other evidence of tension at No.10 around this time. She had sharp words for Gow the month before on some unknown topic, according to Alan Walters’ diary (28 Feb 1983): “Ian Gow said PM said to him - 'Why do you support my enemies rather than me?' - but as Ian said we (Ian & me) are her most loyal supporters".

Gordon Reece was drafted in from Occidental Petroleum in California at various points in the run-up and for the duration of the campaign. He reversed his previous long-standing opposition to putting MT into television debates with her opponents, evident not only in the 1979 general election but in her bid for the party leadership in 1975 (see minutes of 5 Jan 1983 Chequers meeting). This TV debate proposal had some support from the top press adviser at Conservative Central Office (Tony Shrimsley minute “Prime Minister’s Election Campaign”, 7 Apr 1983) where it was recognised that “the inevitable personalising of the battle by the Press and TV is to our advantage provided we can maintain the contrast between the two sides” (not a problem one would have thought). The idea was turned down definitively on 20 April on the ground that it “would not be in the best interests of British politics”, in a letter approved by MT sent from Shrimsley to BBC Panorama’s editor, George Carey (Gow to Shrimsley, 20 Apr).

Election speculation peaked after the local elections on 5 May 1983, a reasonably strong Conservative performance making June all but certain, rather than October or later. Ministers were known to be meeting at Chequers on Sunday 8 May to examine the results in detail; a curious feature of the party’s private polling at this point (Britto minute, 10 May) was that it showed that a June election was significantly less popular with Conservative voters than the electorate as a whole (35 as opposed to 49 percent) even though two thirds of Conservatives felt the party would win. Reading a 6 May note on the press mood by Ingham, MT commented: "Calm down". She jotted the date of the general election, 9 June, and a rough timetable, on the back of a note by Robin Butler, “Election Contingency Plans” (also 6 May), which had been firmly geared to an election on 23 June, suggesting she advanced the date very late in the day.


1983 may-jun: the campaign

Among the many good luck messages were some from the police and the military. There is an anonymous card from a police superintendent, which MT kept in her personal files:"Our most sincere thanks for your interest and support during the past four years. All at Brixton Police Station are eternally grateful. We wish you good luck and every success on the 9th". There is something similar from her personal protection team. The Bishop of Croydon, who was also Bishop to the Armed Forces, remembered her in his prayers (11 May). On this theme, after she had won the election, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir John Stanier, wrote her: “May I send you on behalf of the Army our congratulations and  best wishes on your convincing victory in the election”.

MT’s election tour generally ran smoothly (Reece purred to Parkinson (27 May) the “campaign is going exceptionally well”, all he could find to criticise was lack of good camera positions). Rent-a-mob crowds were indeed kept away, although broadcasting from the regions proved not to be entirely safe: among the regional viewers invited to quiz the Prime Minister on BBC1’s Nationwide: On the Spot (24 May) was Mrs Gould who taxed her about the General Belgrano. MT took umbrage at the programme format. Sue Lawley later wrote to her politely defending it, receiving an equally polite response which sidestepped the argument but commented how difficult she found it talking to a screen.

The Falklands proved a surprisingly large theme during the election. The Conservatives were wary of doing anything that might be seen to be cashing in on the war; it was a large and very helpful factor, of course, but they deliberately left in the background. It made little sense for Labour to raise it in any significant way, but nevertheless, they did. It was not just Mrs Gould and the usual suspects banging on about the Belgrano: Denis Healey put the war at the centre of the campaign when he accused MT of “glorying in slaughter” in Birmingham on 1 June, almost the worst possible outcome from Labour’s point of view because now they were accused of playing politics with it, by Colonel H. Jones’s widow among others.

MT’s private and public responses to his remark were closely aligned, a studied refusal to descend, which left Healey swinging: “it’s gone beyond all bounds of public or political decency” she said simply (election press conference, 2 Jun), while she wrote to St John-Stevas (6 Jun): "I agree with you about the Healeyism. It went too far - even for him". Some around her thought that Healey had written off Labour’s chances of winning and was instead positioning himself for a post-election Labour leadership contest against Kinnock, who also raised the war and had called for a public inquiry into the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser (Sherman, 5 Jun). At the end of the campaign Bernard Ingham described it to her as a “rather dirty election” (Ingham minute, 7 Jun 1983). Polling, published and private, showed that the Falklands quarrel dug Labour even deeper into its electoral hole, pushing them below 30 per cent, while doing nothing for the Alliance whose campaign failed to capitalise on Labour’s disasters sufficiently to outpoll their share of the vote (Britto minute, 5 June). From a Conservative point of view things could hardly have gone better.

There is nothing in the papers about her rejection of the Saatchi poster depicting Michael Foot as a pensioner who would be better off under the Tories. But there are clear private rejections of personal attacks. “Please leave out all references to Labour personalities. We fight on policies” (MT to Iain Sproat, 17 May). She was indignant when Christopher Monckton told Gow she should not “stoop to personal abuse” after her speech in Perth (Monckton, 16 May, helpfully shown her by Gow). “Where was the personal abuse in that speech? Give me one example”. When Foot retired in October she sent him a warm letter, saying she had “greatly valued the frankness and confidence with which we have been able to conduct our personal business as Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition” (MT to Foot, 7 Oct 1983).

What to say and do if and when she won the election? When Ingham asked for a steer on 2 June (“Media on June 10”), he was told “Let’s not count our chickens. We can always make arrangements”, a predictable turning away of the wrath she believed the gods hurl down on the presumptuous. MT had been similarly reluctant to consider what she should say after the 1979 election, assuming she won. But undoubtedly she did think and read carefully:

On your re-election you would no doubt wish to share your triumph with the people, both with them and through the media.

You would also wish to set the tone for your new Administration remembering the extent to which St Francis of Assisi has been quoted back at you over the last four years.

Subject to security advice, my objective would be to enable you genuinely to share your success with the voters while at the same time permitting the media to film it but not ruin it for the public

The outcome was that no prayer was offered on her return to No.10, no rhetorical hostage to fortune. Instead she followed the approach adopted on the night the Falklands was liberated, mingling with a crowd allowed through the barrier into Downing Street. Ingham had thought she might go to the Palace, but her Principal Private Secretary, Robin Butler, explained that there was no occasion for it, since she was simply continuing in office, further underplaying the moment. In the chapter on the 1983 election in her memoirs, she chose to end it with a recollection of what followed next - her going upstairs to the No.10 flat, which of course she had cleared in case she needed to make a swift departure, looking round and thinking with satisfaction “now the clutter can build up again”. Home safe.


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

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