Release of MT's private files for 1987 - (1) run-up to the General Election

By Jan 1987, the date of the next General Election was the foremost question in British politics. In theory, MT might call it as late as June 1988, but few doubted she would go sooner.

Election year had begun.

Introduction: Election Year

"NO - not Post Office"
MT vetoes Post Office privatisation

Poignantly, one of the earliest significant papers in MT's 1987 election files dates from the time of the Westland affair, when the next election must have seemed a very long time away (20 Dec 1985). Even to discuss the matter with MT at that moment expressed a kind of faith in her future, which perhaps was the point of the document, or part of it. The head of the No.10 Policy Unity, Brian Griffiths, analysed third-term options and then discussed them with her face to face, scribbling down her responses page by page. Some of her own jottings can be found as well, e.g., as to privatisation: "NO - not Post Office".

The programme of MT's third term is usually seen as a radical one. There is truth in that characterisation, for example in educational reform and the poll tax, but one finds caution too in some of her responses to the Griffiths document. Her attitude is understandable, perhaps - that far out, in such difficult circumstances - but in fact the balance between conservative and reforming instincts remained even when her position was stronger and the election a lot closer. We release documents on manifesto planning in winter 1986/87 which show repeated efforts to commit her to privatise coal and the railways. At one point, in fact, coal looked to be a likely runner, in part or whole, but the final manifesto committed to water and electricity alone – pretty much the minimum possible.

Two other areas where the manifesto deliberately kept things light were the NHS and student loans. “It would not be necessary to mention students loans in the manifesto”, the party’s Strategy Group decided on 2 Mar 1987. MT’s annotated text of the second draft of the manifesto (1 May) shows her cutting a paean to “Big Bang”. City issues had been causing the government difficulty in the run-up to the election, notably the Guinness affair, which left Trade and Industry Secretary Paul Channon, as a member of the Guinness family, in a particularly uncomfortable position.

The manifesto timetable was deliberately kept very tight, no doubt in part for reasons of security, but also it seems to keep MT herself as far away from detailed involvement as could decently be done, probably for fear that she would derail the whole thing by demanding exhausting and impossible rewrites. Ministerial input was still needed of course, but MT was reluctant to appoint a colleague to play the role, only grudgingly relinquishing it to John MacGregor, the most junior member of the cabinet - and therefore no sort of rival. Howe had done the job in 1983.

The slogan "strong and stable government” was one of the headings in the 1987 manifesto (p8), but there is no particular story about the origin of the phrase. Perhaps the authors of the 2017 Conservative platform looked back through past manifestos and borrowed. MT had certainly done the same. When she talked of creating a "property-owning democracy" she was borrowing from Anthony Eden in the 1950s, and he had lifted it from a long-forgotten Conservative MP, Noel Skelton, who had written a brilliant pamphlet on the theme in 1924.

Spring 1987: Campaign Planning

Manifesto drafting was of course only part of the wider business of election planning, a complex and delicate operation requiring party and government to cooperate closely yet also keep a distance - the official machine professedly being neutral as to electoral outcomes.

In 1987 the whole manoeuvre was made more awkward still by the badly eroded relationship between MT and her party chairman, Norman Tebbit. There are many documents on their falling out. As the election neared, MT sought to involve David Young in Tebbit’s domain, inevitably causing further deterioration. MT’s Political Secretary at No.10, Stephen Sherbourne, did his best to anticipate and minimise friction.

Even so, personal tensions jump off the page as one reads these files, suggestive of deep disfunction in the machine - for example an exchange of letters smoothing over some forgotten flare-up between MT, Sherbourne and Michael Dobbs, Tebbit’s Chief of Staff at Central Office. Sherbourne blamed the Zeebrugge Ferry disaster for MT’s scratchy mood, but whatever stress the capsizing cost her, the reasons were surely closer to home. And this row took place several months before the campaign proper.

The vexed role of Saatchis in all this is discussed in a briefing Sherbourne wrote before a meeting between MT and Maurice Saatchi on 15 Apr, which also mentions David Young and Tim Bell. By this stage Bell had left the agency, but remained close to MT.

One particular issue in regard to Tebbit was his public role as chairman. There was criticism of his aggressive attacks on the Alliance, some of it aired openly by backbenchers and reported in the press. MT held an informal meeting with a group of Conservative MPs on 22 Apr (a noontime drink) to discuss how to handle the Alliance, a revealing piece of freelance election planning, one of the conclusions of which was that it was “important to keep tone ‘civilised’ in dealing with the Alliance” – likely a dig at Tebbit, the argument being that his tactics would not deter Conservative defections in that direction. Classic arguments against hung parliaments were discussed, including the danger of making the British government dependent on the DUP. One of those present at the meeting was John Major, who was tasked to come up with a list of “specific SDP/Lib policies which would damage the self-interest of potential Tory defectors” and who produced an impressive note, which he took care to send personally to MT.

Clearly one great area of Conservative strength, quite likely the greatest, was the performance of the economy. Even unemployment was beginning to fade as a problem: it had begun to fall in the month of Westland, January 1986 (though employment had been rising since 1983). But one of the oddities of the campaign, yet another internal disfunction, is the degree to which the Treasury and Nigel Lawson were kept at a distance, largely it seems because MT’s disagreement with her Chancellor over British membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism had badly soured relations. Before the manifesto was drafted, Policy Groups in each area came up with reports designed to give the party an input to the process, or at least to make it seem as if it had one. Brian Griffiths sent MT a critical account of the report from Lawson’s group, which recommended joining the ERM after the election, if we hadn't done before. At the trivial end of the scale, MT’s long-running spat with Lawson over his hairstyle crops up in an annotation she made around 24 Feb: under the line “who appears” (perhaps referring to election press conferences) she wrote “Nigel – tidy up”.

For all these private and semi-private rows, pre-election polling shows solid Conservative recovery. Labour began 1987 not far off level with the Conservatives, but in February and March opinion shifted strongly – as it turned out, decisively – back to the government. MT’s Moscow visit looks to have been particularly effective, widening the Conservative lead over Labour to 12 points. (There will be more on the Moscow visit in a later section.) Public approval of the government also sharply improved, to a level of minus 6 in April (41/47). By comparison it had stood at an astonishing minus 41 in April 1986, the month of the US raid on Libya which marked a lower point even than Westland (a mere minus 31).