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Release of MT's private files for 1985 - (6) life & politics at No.10

No.10 is more than simply an office, or even a home: in some ways it is a kind of family. Generally MT found it a great strength and support, though there were times when things functioned less well than they might have done

1985: the No.10 machine

'Presentation': Ingham's candid assessment of MT's weaknesses, 24 Spt 1985

Like all Prime Ministers, MT depended to a huge degree on her officials and other advisors at No.10. But she had a lot less than full control over who served her there. It is one of the mysteries of her premiership that she struggled to recruit and retain a like-minded economic adviser, having to do without one before Alan Walters arrived in January 1981, then finding herself bereft when he returned to the US in early 1984. His attempts to influence policy by telegram and telephone from Washington were not an unmitigated success – though certainly he retained some influence.

Recruitment to her Policy Unit also proved surprisingly difficult, while the routines of the civil service guaranteed constant turnover in her Private Office, the normal stint for her Private Secretaries being only three years. In 1988 she lost her Principal Private Secretary, Robin Butler, who went back to the Treasury, promoted of course. But something went a little awry with the system at this point, as Butler himself explained in a warm farewell letter to MT, talking of his successor Nigel Wicks and No.10 colleague Andrew Turnbull, the Economics Private Secretary:

... I am going to miss No.10. But I know that this is the right moment to make the change, so that Nigel will be able to see you over the next Election. I had not planned that Andrew would leave until Nigel was well played in and that is not ideal; but Andrew deserves his promotion and it is an acceptable price to pay to get Nigel, who is absolutely first-rate.

So a kind of deal was done in terms of timing. Certainly Nigel Wicks was a most able official, with previous experience of No.10 under MT’s immediate predecessors, as was David Norgrove, Turnbull’s replacement. But the files from late 1985 – and events themselves – suggest a No.10 machine functioning some way off its best and perhaps that is one reason.

A symptom can be found in a paper Wicks sent round to the Private Secretaries and other key figures in No.10 when he was a few weeks into the job (20 Spt), titled “The Prime Minister’s Time”, and asking innocently enough whether this, her “most precious commodity” was being managed as well as it might? Could they not plan better, act rather than react? His colleagues were given five days to respond in writing to a list of things she needed to do.

The replies (all in same document) have a rather weary air, none more than that from Charles Powell, who offered a series of reflections not far off sarcastic:

One is that Prime Ministers without enough in the diary are as difficult as those with too much. There is no immediate risk of this, but I do recall days on which we wished the diary had been fuller. /Another is to warn against filling the diary with meetings about the diary (cf Mr Addison’s minute)./ I do not disagree with the objectives you propose, though when it comes down to it, we have to fly by the seat of our pants. A great deal of what goes in the diary is inevitably demand-led. / A very considerable omission from your list is foreign affairs. The Prime Minister exercises strategic direction of foreign affairs: and after 6.5 years is something of an international super-star whom everyone wants to see. We calculated earlier this year that foreign affairs (including defence and Ireland) might be taking up as much as 40 per cent of her time. This is too much, but realistically it will and should be a major feature of her diary.

Naturally enough all of the Private Secretaries felt that she should be spending more time on their particular bit of the job. The Economics Secretary was brief. “I have two additions to offer to the ‘strategic issues’ – macro economic policy, the control of public expenditure”. Her diary secretary huffily demanded to know “what sorts engagements, if any, the Prime Minister has been fulfilling recently which do not coincide with the objectives set out by you”?

Robin Catford, the Patronage Secretary with responsibility among other things for ecclesiastical relations, of course came up with the thought: “Shouldn't there be a reference somewhere to the cultural/moral/spiritual side of life?” Realising perhaps that he might struggle in a stand-up fight for time in the midst of a sterling crisis or the like, he didn’t suggest a special spiritual slot in the diary for these things, but cunningly pitched for “recognition that the Prime Minister needs some leisure time, which probably boils down to the same as keeping in touch with spiritual things of various kinds”.

MT’s own contribution came when, on the eve of the Westland affair, Wicks sent her his conclusions (20 Oct). She added to the now lengthy list of core tasks “and time to get about the country!” (he had forgotten Prime Ministerial tours) and concluded the whole exercise with an ideal but impractical solution: “Excellent - alas we need 48 hours in every day”.

1985: ‘Presentation’ and Ingham’s role

There is a lot in the 1985 files on the topic of ‘presentation’ from Bernard Ingham. The press assumed he had the closest possible relationship with MT, and understandably – necessarily – he fostered that image. But the archives suggest that he often struggled to achieve access and influence with her. He had a bad year, beginning with the Jan 1985 run on the pound sterling crisis which his briefing was thought to have contributed to, earning him a summons to the Chancellor’s study at No.11 for dressing down. None of this implies lack of faith in Ingham on MT's part; in fact she strongly defended him after the January crisis and trusted his judgment of the media. He was licensed to speak to her with complete frankness, and the files show that he did so, quite frequently. The deeper truth is that she was not herself interested in 'presentation', regarding it as a tiresome distraction from the real task, and temperamentally disinclined to anything that might even hint at adjusting positions in pursuit of a better press.

The following month Ingham came into a serious collision with Tebbit at DTI, who thought he was blurring the lines between government and party, and sent MT a personal minute criticising his plans for using teams of Conservative backbenchers to get across the governments message in economic and social policy (Feb 7). Tebbit’s press officer was Colette Bowe, who clashed again with Ingham the following year, much more seriously, during Westland.

Throughout the year Ingham pressed on MT the need to show that she cared – particularly about unemployment. He wanted her to use the word, to tell as well as show (eg, 20 Jan 1985 briefing for TV Eye interview). Her inclination was all the other way: she was far readier to show than tell, at least in public (see 20 Jan MT to Mrs Dickie for private use of the word; also MT’s visit to Clwyd on 26 Apr when she was very critical of Courtaulds for closing two local factories and earned herself a warm letter of thanks from the local MP, one Anthony Meyer).

Appropriately enough Ingham made his biggest effort to push her in this direction as work got underway on her biggest speech of the year, at the party conference (24 Spt 1985 “Your Speech – 11 October”). There is a defensive air to this note, a robust assertion that the problems are not of his making, or the fault of machinery: "I firmly believe there is nothing wrong with this Government that a steady, however small, fall in unemployment would not cure”. He went on to urge that she show “a recognition and understanding of the problems faced by the unfortunate in our society; this is not to say you should appear soft – rather the opposite, you should go out of your way in a deliberate but sympathetic manner, to acknowledge their problems”.

You should also have at the back of your mind the guilt complex among the "haves" about the "have nots". It is vital that you signal your compassion - and don't deride the word, because that is what many of your supporters think you lack - to the "haves" who populate the South East and the Conservative Party conference.

There is more in this vein, a call for inspiration and vision, including the warning that she is seen as “hectoring, strident, bossy” – though he defends her from the charge and thinks it inevitable as the sole female in a male-dominated media.

As ever, MT sat down and wrote a draft opening for the speech herself. It contained the idea that the last Labour government had “mouthed the language of compassion but no longer had the wherewithal to pay for it”, surely rather a long way from what he had in mind. In the end her speechwriters came up with the formula that she ‘understands’ (Harris 9 Oct), and that is the word she used in her speech.

‘Presentation’ was also at the heart of the 1985 reshuffle: the promotion to cabinet of supposedly good communicators Baker, Clarke and MacGregor, the desire for a ‘New Look’, the machinery of government changes. Ingham sought to maintain the arrangements he had built up with Willie Whitelaw (2 Aug, 16 Spt minutes), but events like the TSRB row put him on the back foot. Plainly the arrival of Tebbit as party chairman was not welcome from his point of view: he repeatedly warned against making a Commons minister responsible for presentation of policy and their clash in Feb will not have been forgotten.

And all this was merely prelude to Westland. That crisis of course bracketed Powell and Ingham in the public mind as MT’s closest officials, criticised for supposedly encouraging a ‘bunker’ mentality. At this point probably Powell was the more powerful of the two, a rather remarkable thing for a 44 year old who had only been at No.10 for 18 months. A tiny detail in the diary throws a little light. The Washington-based British journalist Henry Brandon, married to the American socialite Muffie Brandon, was writing a memoir. Ingham decided against securing him an interview with MT, but Brandon appealed to Powell, whom he had met socially on a US visit. Brandon got his interview – Powell scrupulously copying Ingham in (10 Jan).

A visit to the crypt

A quick Q&A:

Q: How many people does it take to unveil a memorial to the Falklands War in the crypt at St Paul’s?
A: Around twenty five – four or five royals, three equerries, four military men and thirteen clergymen. But no prime ministers. There would be no room even for one more person.

That was the line No.10 was given when told of arrangements for the long-delayed unveiling of the Falklands Memorial at St Paul’s. MT’s Private Office was paying close attention to the arrangements in part because the Archbishop of Canterbury was preaching and memories of the July 1982 service of thanksgiving had not faded much. The unveiling itself had not initially seemed likely to be a problem, until the cathedral authorities hit on the idea that they needed an extraordinary number of clerics to be accompany the VIPs from the main body of the cathedral into the crypt – citing protocol and the ecclesiastical equivalent of crowd control, a big contingent of vergers being necessary to keep a procession like this from getting lost on the way. In fact it seemed the clerics needed to outnumber the other processors by a healthy margin, for complete safety.

With some hesitation one of MT’s newer Private Secretaries allowed himself to be persuaded by officials at the responsible ministry, Defence, that this was for the best. He had rung Heseltine's office and discovered “they were not surprised to hear from me”; nonetheless he bought the idea that MT should be content with being the first to lay a wreath, when the unveiling was over. His boss, Robin Butler, did not agree. He knew her better.

Heseltine unwisely allowed a letter to reach MT that showed his officials apparently signing off the arrangement. She made an explosive annotation:

Kindly ask the Secretary of State to see me immediately after Cabinet. MT

Both Butler and Heseltine visited the Crypt in person to see for themselves. How much space was there? Who should stand where? Just how many vergers did you really need?

Following this Heseltine wrote MT a very simple and polite apology (25 Apr). “I am satisfied that this matter was not well handled”. She responded graciously, and the plan was formed that she would attend the unveiling accompanied by other party leaders - space having proved to be much more abundant than first feared. Heseltine offered her a choice between standing with the other leaders, or next to the Chiefs of Staff. He professed a mild preference for the former. Unsurprisingly she had a clear preference for the latter.

Around this time MT sent Heseltine a gift of young box trees from Chequers for his country home in Northamptonshire, knowing that arboreal pursuits were close to his heart. Later, at a crucial moment during the Westland affair, Heseltine invited the press to film him pruning in his arboretum, though whether the Chequers trees were the target of his attention is unclear.


Foreign policy

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