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Release of MT's private files for 1983 - (3) politics after the election


MT' victory at the 1983 General Election amounted to a personal triumph, given the scale of the problems her first government had faced. Her papers shows that she realised that a landslide victory would carry risks for her, however welcome as vindication.

1983 jun 9: victory

Ingham's warning to MT

Immediately after the election one of MT’s officials at No.10 (Tim Flesher note, 15 June) gave her a note on the psephology which she liked enough to ask for a second on “1983 election records” (Flesher, 21 June), the occasion perhaps for a little bit of private gloating. Labour had almost certainly suffered a two election defeat, the party needing a recovery beyond anything plausible to win next time, although a hung parliament in 1987/88 was far easier to imagine. The Conservatives won a majority of 144 seats, their strongest performance on some measures since 1935, MT’s first election, when she had delivered leaflets for Sir Victor Warrender in Grantham and red print dye had rubbed off on her hands, earning her a tease she still recalled more than fifty years later (“that’s Lady Warrender’s lipstick”).

Astonishingly she was the first Conservative Prime Minister to win two elections in a row since Salisbury, while the increase in her government’s majority was the largest since 1832. All told, in 1983 she had achieved something as close to complete political vindication as it is sensible to imagine. But she puts two ticks next to the following observation by Ingham, in a note just before the election (Ingham minute “Presentation to Recess”, 7 Jun):

Nor should you under-estimate the British capacity to reject success. The more successful you are – i.e., the bigger your majority – the more the media will seek to bring you down to earth and humble you.

Congratulations arrived in Downing Street in vast numbers. President Reagan wrote twice, and rang as well (we don’t have a copy of the call); no one quite matched that. Shultz and Haig wrote, also Nixon. European Community leaders, who had sent not a word following her success in the Falklands, repaired the omission, though some entered pious caveats (Dutch Prime Minister, Ruud Lubbers – “I trust that Britain under your leadership will go on to do her full part in Europe in the interest of the well-being and further development of European integration”; Kohl hinted at a similar connection). Almost every head of government across the world wrote, an International Who’s Who. There are letters from politicians and friends in Britain, one of the most touching from Peter Carrington, a far from uncritical observer over the years:

What a magnificent victory & very largely a personal one. If I may say so you never put a foot wrong, & I am filled with admiration. I hope you are as pleased as all of us are. But what a relief it is over! No answer of course.

Ronnie Millar (15 June):

To come close to quadrupling your majority is such stuff as dreams are made on. What a triumph!

But you earned it, you were true to yourself and you are now so experienced a Premier you will know best how to use it for the good of our beloved country.

I see poor old Foot saying Labour lost because they failed to get their message across. Not so. They lost because they got it across all too clearly - and the people cared not for it.

Let's hope Kinnock takes over, because then the message will be virtually the same - and so will the people's answer.

Which means, dear, you will have to go on forever. Can you manage it? Of course you can. And - as long as you need me - so can I.

Others were more laconic in style. The Saatchi brothers sent masses of flowers with a card that simply said: “Have a nice day”. Tim Bell also said it with flowers, which “transformed the flat at No.10”. There were huge numbers of telegrams, one from Ahmad Gailani of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan, sent from Peshawar on 12 June “oone [sic] behalf of the Mujahid Natin of Afghanistan” [sic] offering “heartfelt congratulations for your landslide victory”. The NIFA seems to have been a moderate and royalist connection/party, powerful among Afghan exiles in Pakistan, one of the routes through which the CIA sent weapons to the Mujahidin fighting the Soviet occupation.

A correspondent from Grantham wrote her a recollection of her father supposedly saying to him c1950: “That girl could be Prime Minister if she set her mind to it” (see MT to A. Bennett, 20 Jun).

1983 jun 10-11: reshuffle

MT's jotted reshuffle plan

The scale of the victory, and its peculiarly personal element, left MT a freer hand at the post-election reshuffle than at any other time as Prime Minister, but of course she was not wholly free, even then – and the tumbling to earth came sooner than even she might have expected.

One of two key moves in her plan had been to make the party chairman, Cecil Parkinson, Foreign Secretary, an idea she seems to have kept pretty much to herself – even David Wolfson, her Chief of Staff, knew nothing of it when he prepared her a document offering “Another View of the Reshuffle” (10 Jun 1983). Perhaps that is because such speedy promotion to very high office would have carried the implication that she favoured Parkinson as her successor, and might well have met powerful opposition from those who generally advised her on reshuffles, particularly Willie Whitelaw. But there is little doubt this was her intention, judging from undated jotted notes in MT’s hand: “F.S. – CP [Cecil Parkinson]. Hom.Sec. G.H. [Geoffrey Howe] Ind. N.T. [Tebbit] Empl. P.J. [Parick Jenkin] or P.W. [Peter Walker] Env. LB. [Leon Brittan] Ch.Whip J.W. [John Wakeham]”.

Did she intend Parkinson to be her successor, putting him in place at this moment of extraordinary personal authority, suggesting almost an intimation of political mortality? Nothing in the papers gives a clue, but it is reasonable to speculate, because she will certainly have understood how his appointment would be taken and we have seen already that she understood that the scale of her victory had its perils for her.

Of course things did not go to plan. On election day itself Parkinson warned her that he had been having an affair with his former Commons secretary, Sara Keays, and later that day or the following day MT received a letter from her father, Colonel Keays, which revealed that his daughter was pregnant, to which she briefly replied from Chequers on Sunday 12 June. These details are known from existing, published sources: the only surviving document in her files is a typed copy of her reply, slightly different from the handwritten version published as a photo in Sara Keays’s book A Question of Judgment (1986 edition, between pp152-53).

Thank you for your letter of 9th June.

I understand that you have since spoken to the person concerned and have asked that I should return your letter, which I now do.

The words in italics are missing from the letter as reprinted. It is always said that MT destroyed the Colonel’s original letter, burning it in the sitting room fireplace at Chequers; here perhaps is indirect evidence for that.

Following this news, MT had hurriedly to redesign the reshuffle, indeed it seems to have been put back a day, in effect. Parkinson was given Trade and Industry, an amalgamation of previously separate departments, giving the job more weight. There is a typed list of ministers in which she adds Trade to the job as an afterthought, though Parkinson is well down the list, which ranks ministers by precedence, a matter obscure to the public but closely observed by ministers themselves. (MT placed him immediately behind Tebbit.) The main knock on effects of this last minute change was that Leon Brittan became Home Secretary rather than Environment Secretary, with Geoffrey Home taking the Foreign Office, which he was publicly reported in April to have expressed an interest in. Tebbit stayed at Employment rather than moving to Industry, which he would have had without Trade, had he gone there at this point.

The other key component of the reshuffle proved much more straightforward: Nigel Lawson was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in place of Geoffrey Howe. This much was known to Wolfson when he wrote his reshuffle minute – perhaps because there was not so much need for secrecy there, because for all his qualities, Lawson was never seen as a plausible candidate for the party leadership and the appointment did not come as a complete surprise. It may well have been decided almost as the first thing in the reshuffle: Lawson’s name doesn’t even figure in MT’s jotted list of ministers, even though that list shows clearly that the existing Chancellor is being moved and the only name much mentioned as an alternative to Lawson – Patrick Jenkin - is mooted for other (and lesser) things.

Another document is relevant: an undated “Suggested Diary” for the reshuffle, evidently intended for Friday 10 June, with annotations by Robin Butler. It probably predates the Parkinson bombshell, because the meetings itemised here did not take place at the times listed. (She actually saw Pym on the Friday evening for example.) This document lists a number of appointments marked ‘fixed’ – they include two of the dismissals, Young and Pym. If you were being fired or significantly demoted (as Young was), you got to see the PM in person.

Ministerial accommodation received due attention. Leaving the Treasury, Howe was allocated the grace and favour house at Chevening, which he described in his memoirs as "the most desirable feature of my six years at the Foreign Office" (p312), while Willie Whitelaw was to keep Dorneywood, presumably with similarly soothing intentions – MT marks this emphatically. Whitelaw had let it be known that he did not want to leave the Commons; his biographers report that he resisted pressure to stand down from his parliamentary seat at the general election, later saying as much in public (Guardian, 19 Jul 1983), so forcing MT to trigger a by-election if she sent him to the Lords. Although she deeply disliked by-elections in these circumstances, Whitelaw’s bluff was called and he took the Lords job.

Not only did Lawson not get a country house at this point, he was to be invited to give up a basement scullery and the 3rd floor flat at No.11. More important, it looks as if he was to be allocated a Chief Secretary (Peter Rees) rather than involved in the appointment. Wolfson wanted to take a cabinet committee away from the Chancellor too, to build up Tebbit.

Pym was fired outright, though apparently half-offered the Speakership – a job he didn’t want and which wasn’t in MT’s gift. Her letter thanking him “most warmly for all that you have done” was typed at No.10 during Trooping the Colour, the military bands booming and crashing in the background while Pym was upstairs with the Thatchers and their guests.

1983 spt-oct: the fall of cecil parkinson

There is only a handful of papers in these files relating to Cecil Parkinson’s resignation.

Parkinson was replaced as party chairman by John Gummer on 14 September. There is a note of a meeting that day between MT and his deputy, Michael Spicer, expressing his distress at not getting the job himself, and agreeing to continue at Central Office, in response to which MT says she ‘hoped’ that she could offer him a ministerial job in the next reshuffle “with some degree of choice”. But this document doesn’t tell us anything about the reasoning behind the decision to make the change at this time. According to Sara Keays’ book, there had been a second exchange of letters between her father and the Prime Minister on 2 and 5 September (pp76-79). There is no sign of these letters in the Thatcher papers.

There is Press Office material from 6-7 Oct, when the story broke following a statement from Parkinson, on the eve of the Conservative Conference at Blackpool.

  • MT marked for attention the fact that Parkinson was due to appear on Panorama, where obviously he would be drawn into questioning on the statement.
  • Ingham sent her a note of his handling of the Sunday Lobby (Ingham minute 7 Oct), which was looking for material to keep the story going. “I played a very dead bat. ... Not having made much headway here, they then explored a broader area … namely that the government is running into early trouble and that you are running out of luck.  ... From all this, it seems clear to me that what the media will be looking for from you next Friday is a speech which conjures inspiration out of the essentially long-term task of rejuvenating Britain; and while acknowledging criticisms, deal so firmly and persuasively with them that Fleet Street is convinced that the Government, far from running out of steam or into trouble, will return on October 24 with some zip, bang and purpose".

It is clear that MT took some criticism immediately for not asking Parkinson to stand down. She wrote to Sir Maurice Laing, of the building company, on 10 October, after receiving a letter from him:

I need hardly tell you that this has been a very difficult and painful episode for me. I understand why you have reached the conclusion in your letter. I am sure you will understand that I have only reached my own view after very careful consideration. And I hope that you will be able to agree with me, whatever view each of may take about this particular situation, Cecil Parkinson was a marvellous help and support during the Falklands crisis, has been a superb Chairman of the Conservative Party, to whom we owe a great deal, and is now an absolutely first class departmental Minister.

There was some opinion expressed the other way too. She wrote to retired Old Bailey Judge Alan King-Hamilton on 17 October:

Thank you so much for your understanding letter of 10th October. I know that you did not ask for a reply but I wanted to say how grateful I am for your kind words and support. I know that Cecil Parkinson will be grateful too. [Handwritten PS] It has been a most difficult week - and such a sad ending for everyone. These days it is not permitted to suffer one's wounds in private. There has been no peace for Cecil & Anne.

On Monday 17 October an exchange of resignation letters was drafted, two days after the resignation itself. They appear not to have been published. It certainly seems likely they were intended to be published; perhaps it was judged they were coming too late in the day to do anything but keep the story going (it was fading in the press by then).

Norman Tebbit had to go to London on the Friday for his son’s school prizegiving, missing the Prime Minister’s closing speech to conference in the afternoon. He took care to warn her by letter of his absence and the reason for it, adding: "I hope all goes well - especially after the Times story today" [ie, Sara Keays’ statement, which precipitated the resignation].

MT added to her speech, at the opening, a tribute to Cecil Parkinson as an architect of the election victory. It was not there in earlier drafts of the speech, though it is hard to believe she wouldn't have said something even if he had not left the government. For once though she was pretty thoroughly upstaged at her own party conference.


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

Next page - Life at No.10