MT's private files for 1990 - (8) the fall

The shorthand term is "the first ballot", but of course it was also the last. MT never again stood for elected office of any kind.


The fall
Opening of Turnbull's memorandum

We have one outstanding document covering those final days, a fifteen page “Secret and Personal” memorandum of events titled “Prime Minister’s Resignation, 22 November 1990”. This was written by Andrew Turnbull, her Principal Private Secretary. For security’s sake only two copies were made. Despite the title, it covered the previous day extensively, and a little of 20 November too.

The memorandum speaks for itself: if you read no other document from the Thatcher files, read this. Much of its contents will be familiar to those who know the literature well, because it was drawn on heavily during the writing of MT’s memoirs and also the final volume of Charles Moore’s biography. But the document itself has not been available to the public before now.

It may seem strange that an official made such a note, but it was not without precedent. One of Turnbull’s predecessors as official head of No.10, Robert Armstrong, had written something similar when the Heath Government fell in February 1974 and an attempt was made to form a coalition with the Liberals. Thank goodness Turnbull took the trouble, because without it we would know far less of those days. The document gains enormously in authority from the combination of intimacy, access and a degree of detachment possessed by its author. There is a certain savagery about it too. Detachment had its limits.


The massive archival record of the Thatcher premiership breaks up at this point. The systems had failed or been suspended. There is almost nothing of substance in the files on the period between her resignation and departure from No.10, particularly on her astonishing speech in the Commons confidence debate on 22 November and her role in securing the succession for John Major. Instead there are masses of letters sent to her, along with her replies, from a vast range of people: fellow leaders, friends and colleagues (both official and political, the former warmer than the latter), journalists and businessmen, archbishops and generals, sportsmen, actors and sundry showbiz types, socialites and fundraisers, party people and many who are just impossible to categorise or trace. After a lifetime in politics, fifteen years of it at the very top, MT had a huge circle of acquaintance. Only she knew its full extent. There were so many letters a separate operation had to be set up to deal with them run by a former diary secretary; tens of thousands of them have only just resurfaced from store, yet to be sorted and read. For once MT seems to have been unable to deal with it all. The task was too great, and surely too painful. Most letters from the public received no personal answer.

A file of letters involving foreign leaders was released at the National Archives in December 2016. These were dealt by the official machine, responses being drafted in the main by Charles Powell. Colleagues and prominent friends were dealt with more personally by MT, it would seem, although stock replies were the norm in most cases, even to cabinet ministers. In fact for the latter category, the stock replies were probably meant to sting. Many wrote quite meaningfully to her and received only a formal reply – for example, Kenneth Clarke, whose letter has the word ‘Stock 1’ written across the top. In her eyes, they had betrayed her.

The most emotional letters, and surely the most meaningful to her, were from officials with whom she had worked closely. She was immensely warm to her staff, inspiring great loyalty, affection and regard. They were family of a sort, and friends too. They had worked alongside her, night and day, helped to carry the many burdens, and shared at least some of the risks. The murder of Ian Gow showed how real those risks were.

We have the letter Charles Powell wrote her after she had lost it all, an impossible letter to write, but ever skilful in drafting, he did it of course. He was an official like no other, an outstanding intellect with a matchless work ethic, as well as being the only person who knew her mind better than she did and who was trusted by her too.

Dear Prime Minister

Just to say that you were magnificent yesterday, in the House & out of it. Those of us who have been fortunate to work with you never doubted your courage. But yesterday showed a level of greatness which will not be matched in Britain's politics again.

There are comparisons in the press to some of the great Athenian tragedies, such as the striking down of Themistocles. But they are wrong. The greatest leaders of Athens were struck down by the Assembly: but you struck them down. Every one of the small men who contrived their petty coup will go it shame in their hearts for the rest of their lives. Once again you demonstrated the unbridgeable gulf between greatness and mediocrity. The rest of us can only look on in awe. And for those of us to whom history means something, there was the unforgettable experience of recognising & witnessing the parliamentary equal of Pitt, Gladstone & Churchill. Whatever it must have cost you, it was worth it for the rest of us who believe in you & everything for which you stand.

I can't remember who wrote that "the sense of greatness keeps a nation great". You have given us the sense of greatness & that is Britain's best hope.

I don't suppose the next few days will be easy: but please look to us for any help we can give. Carla [his wife] sends undying love to you both,



There is no copy of her reply to Powell in the files. But we do have the very last letter she wrote as Prime Minister, signed not just by her but by DT, the only one he signed in a series spanning the whole premiership. It was written to Bernard Ingham, who served nearly the whole term with her, far longer than any other of her senior people, coping with enormous pressures on her behalf, year after year, at what cost even MT could not really guess, as she openly acknowledged.

Dear Bernard

My last act as Prime Minister must be to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for eleven years of loyal and trusty service and companionship. It has been a remarkable performance: and I could certainly never have achieved all that we set out to do, had it not been for your constant support. I very much doubt that any official has ever held so demanding a post for so long or performed so valiantly. As I look back on my years as Prime Minister, I shall always remember you as the man who stood by me through thick and thin. I fear the strain on you and your family must have been very great: but you never complained and were always there when needed.

So it is with great admiration and heart-felt thanks that Denis and I say goodbye to you and to No.10 - for the two are almost inseparable in our minds - and wish you and Nancy [his wife] every happiness.

With warmest regards from all the family

Margaret and Denis

Selection of documents mentioned on this page

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