The real Lady Thatcher
As head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit, Ferdinand Mount was with her in No 10 as she terrified ministers, made shepherd's pie and refused to go to bed
With his velvety brown eyes and crinkly black hair, Sir Keith Joseph radiated nervous energy and a heavy cold as he introduced himself. There was a flourishing of handkerchiefs, a seismic nose-blowing, an unrestrained show of misery.
I had the health and pensions brief at the Conservative Research Department in a pleasant old building that at the back looked out on St James’s Park. But I was on the street side. The Conservatives had recently lost the 1964 general election after 13 years in power, and Keith had just been appointed my shadow minister.
His conspicuous rheum did not interfere in the slightest with his appetite for work. “Please write me a paper on it,” he would say after a few minutes’ discussion on any subject, and the next morning he had already digested it and was waving it about, tapping it with his pen, almost blowing his nose on it: “This is a splendid paper, quite splendid.”
After three or four meetings, he asked if I would greatly mind if he brought Margaret Thatcher, his junior spokesman, to our next one. Not bringing her in from the start was an example of Keith’s thoughtless, forgetful insouciance. She had been a junior minister in the department for the last three years of the Tory government, whereas Keith was a relative novice in the field, so she might be expected to know rather more about it than he did (let alone his assistant) and should have been at the first meeting.
This turned out to be her view too.When she came into the room, she made a strong physical impression. She was both a little cross and unmistakeably pretty, more striking because she was giving off this whiff of umbrage. At the same time she was entirely calm.
The note of censure in her voice seemed to come quite naturally to her, as did the way she sat so upright at the table. She was then 39 years old and to me looked more like one of the overage milkmaids in the chorus of the Bath panto than someone in training to be an Iron Lady, although you could not miss the willpower.
In a voice sharper then than it later became, she began to slice my papers into pitiful shreds. “I don’t see any figures of the cost there. Where are the figures?”
“Yes, yes, we must have figures,” Keith came in eagerly.
“And what exactly would be the benefits of integrating these two branches of the service?”
“Well, they would be, well, more coordinated.”
“That is surely another way of saying the same thing.”
By the time she became prime minister in 1979, I had long ago abandoned any thought of a political career and had happily settled for a life of writing anything that came to hand or mind. So it was a total surprise when her chief economics adviser, Alan Walters, rang up in March 1982 and asked whether I would care to run her policy unit at No 10.
“It’s only a little unit,” Alan said apologetically.
The idea knocked me flat. Although I had ambled around on the fringes of party politics, I had never run anything and had zero experience of the workings of government.
“Should I take it?” I asked Julia, my wife.
“Well, you’re always going on about what the government ought to do, so isn’t this a chance to put your ideas into practice? Won’t you always regret it if you don’t?”
“But I didn’t really get on with her.” “That was ages ago, wasn’t it?” “Ye-es,” I said, and I knew Julia was right.
I was invited to Downing Street for a chat. She was seated upstairs in her study in a high-winged armchair covered in some Peter Jones brocade or chintz. Sitting opposite her was like having tea with my aunt Ursie in one of the hotels off Gloucester Road that she migrated between.
“It’s a long time since we last worked together, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said, “nearly 20 years.” She seemed to have completely forgotten what she had thought of me at the time, viz that I was an idle and effete youth who was full of the conventional consensus mush of the 1960s. I had been reinvented as a dynamic young research assistant who had been completely on her wavelength.
“There’s nobody here who has any idea how to write a speech,” she said. “I hope you’ll be able to help with that.”
Yes, I said, of course I would, though my primary focus would be on developing policy ideas.
“We always need fresh ideas,” she said. “But you’re such a wordsmith.”
She spoke of this quality with the respect due to any expertise, at the same time suggesting that it ranked lowish in the hierarchy of skills, nearer to being a dental technician than a nuclear physicist.
There was no doubt that in her mind I was the answer to the speechwriting problem. I thought of myself more as the answer to the policy problem. So there we were, starting off on a misunderstanding. I suppose many marriages have started on a worse basis.
Every now and then the eyes switched on – the eyes of Caligula, according to François Mitterrand – and you could feel she was saying something that she set real store by, as she did now: “What we really have to address are the values of society. This is my real task, to restore standards of conduct and responsibility. Otherwise, we shall simply be employing more and more policemen on an increasingly hopeless task.
“Everyone has to be involved. At one time, women’s magazines played quite a constructive role. Now they’ve just caved in. Personal responsibility is the key. That was what destroyed Greece and Rome – bread and circuses. It has to stop, Ferdy; it has to stop.”
I found all this both startling and thrilling. The naked zeal, the direct, unabashed appeal to morality, the sheer seriousness. Smartasses might raise an eyebrow at her jumbling up women’s magazines and the fall of Rome. To me it showed an unblinking resolve to look at things as they were. This was the real thing.
Even on this first meeting, I grasped how difficult, verging on the impossible, it was to make her stick to any topic she didn’t wish to stick to, especially when she got going on her colleagues. A was hopelessly indecisive, B left a trail of muddle behind him and as for Jim Prior, the Northern Ireland secretary, “I call him the False Squire, you know, all bluff and red-faced, but all they’re thinking about is how to plan the next retreat. That’s not why I came into politics. Sometimes you have to retreat, as we did with the miners. But only tactically. You have to go forward or you might as well give up altogether.”
I was shocked but, I confess, thrilled. I didn’t then know any politicians intimately enough to know that denouncing their colleagues as traitors, cowards and halfwits is a pretty standard mode of letting off steam. But I had followed politics closely enough to see that she did have one unique quality: tenacity. She never gave up; she never left a subject alone once it had engaged her attention.
She went on in this vein for a good 10 minutes, as though I needed to be converted to her way of thinking, or at least needed to have it all spelt out, perhaps because I was a foreigner rather than a declared supporter who wrote about British politics twice a week.
This was never to change. Even after she had been haranguing visitors for hours – diplomats, businessmen, newspaper editors – and they had finally gone and she kicked off her shoes and we had a glass of scotch together, she would resume the harangue, as though we had never met before, as though I had not heard the same spiel half a dozen times already that day.
It was well known that she was resistant to humour and often had to have jokes explained to her. But she was also indifferent to most of the tricks of paradox, ambiguity, understatement and saying the opposite of what you mean, which pepper the talk of almost everyone else in this country. This Continued on page 2 was going to be a holiday from irony. I was going to be dealing with a character quite unlike any I had ever had close dealings with before. There was a magnificent lack of restraint, as though the best thing about being prime minister was that you could say whatever came into your head.
I started work on Monday May 17, 1982. The British landings on the Falkland Islands were to begin at dawn the following Friday. The balloon was about to go up in what even the most gung-ho supporter could see was an immensely hazardous enterprise, yet there wasn’t a soul about. Throughout the next three weeks what struck me most was the extraordinary stillness of the place.
There was a cough at the door of my office on the second floor. It was John Vereker, who had been until half an hour earlier the sole member of the policy unit. He was a quick-talking, merry character on secondment from Overseas Development.
“John, where on earth do I start?” “Well, you first insist on seeing all the papers.”
“Won’t they send them automatically? After all, my predecessors said they kicked up a fuss and insisted they saw everything, so won’t all that just carry on?”
“Certainly not. The change is an opportunity to stop sending you all the ‘most secret’ stuff. What you need to do is go and see the cabinet secretary and say the prime minister was most insistent that you had access to all the papers.”
“She didn’t actually say anything about it.”
“Well, she would have if she’d thought of it.”
Slowly, under John’s tuition, I began to see how we could find handholds in the smooth, forbidding walls of a system that was “unhelpful” (the civil servant’s favourite word) to anyone trying to inject anything in the nature of a fresh approach to policy.
He explained that departments sent in their awkward papers for the PM at the end of the day in the hope of getting them into her red box without chaps like us getting our inky fingers on them. The best thing for the minister with a policy or a bit of news that he knew she wouldn’t like was to slip it into the bottom of the box, so that she would see it right at the end of the evening, when she was getting sleepy and might initial it without comment.
We managed to develop a rudimentary early-warning system that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Department of Health and Social Security was planning to bring over some disastrous proposal at the close of play, and we would have a note denouncing the proposal ready to be pinned to it before we had actually read it.
There were moments when speed of foot was of the essence to catch the box before it went up to the prime minister’s flat. I often found myself running full tilt into distinguished persons coming out of official meetings, on one occasion nearly head-butting the prime minister of Italy, Bettino Craxi, at that time regarded as a likely saviour of his country, before he was indicted for corruption. Once, I had to perform a rapid body swerve to avoid the members of the Joint Intelligence Committee marching three abreast.
Occasionally one of these papers got through and the red box had already gone upstairs before we got wind of it. Even then, all was not lost. There was a back stairway leading up to her flat from our offices and it was possible late in the evening to steal up there and deposit our critique in the red box as though it had been there all along.
From along the passage would come the aroma and kerfuffle of the prime minister making shepherd’s pie. This dish was the only one I ever had cooked by her, though others claimed she could roast a nice chicken. Even the bona fides of the shepherd’s was in doubt, since Crawfie, Mrs Thatcher’s diminutive dresser, would when out of sorts claim that it was she who had peeled and mashed the potato and prepared the mince and the prime minister had only to put the two together.
It was not exactly against the rules to fiddle with the red box once it had gone up. At the same time, I felt decidedly burglarish as I scrabbled through the papers trying to find which one to attach our memo to before anyone came down the passage from the kitchen.
There was plenty of domestic traffic on the back stairs, too. In the evening I would often bump into Denis, usually in black tie, off to some dinner of fellow rugby referees or old colleagues in the oil and paint business.
From the first, I was enchanted by him. He was not unlike the figure in Private Eye’s “Dear Bill” letters, although most of the brilliant antique slang deployed by John Wells and Richard Ingrams came not from Denis himself but from the supposed recipient of the letters, Bill Deedes, and even more so from Bill’s son Jeremy – such phrases as HMG for “homemade gent”, which I never actually heard Denis utter.
Such human sensitivity as was on offer in the Thatcher partnership came mostly from him. He was the one who was quick to see when someone was feeling bored or left out of things, the first to smooth over an awkward silence.
Mrs Thatcher did not appear to mind silence when she had nothing to say herself. I have sat through some chilly meals in which only Denis and I kept any semblance of conversation going, about the early flowering of the daffodils in the park or the cost of taxis. If the topic did not catch her fancy, none of the other ministers present would think it worth taking up either, perhaps because joining in with us would condemn them as trivial-minded.
I would sometimes meet Alfred Sherman, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, on the back stairs, too. Alfred already had his reputation as Svengali to Margaret’s Trilby firmly in place. He certainly looked the part: squat, with fierce, glaring eyes and bulbous, unhappy lips. He was bald except for tufts of hair sprouting up behind his ears like some dismal sedge growing between rocks.
After a drink or two – he did not really drink – he was inclined to turn lecherous. The sight of his fat paws fondling the décolletage of Debbie, our new secretary, at a Downing Street party could have come straight out of a George Grosz caricature illustrating the horrors of Berlin nightlife in the 1920s. The heavy tweed suit and bow tie that he tended to wear only added to the impression of suppressed violence.
The whole point of Alfred was that he was horrible and licensed to be horrible. When he went around hissing that “Margaret is surrounded by enemies” in her cabinet, he was speaking nothing less than the truth. His insinuating, unstoppable conversation buoyed her up and gave her intellectual self-confidence. “Alfred’s the leader of the awkward squad,” she would say affectionately.
I began attending some cabinets and cabinet committees, partly out of a touristic fascination to see what they were like. We No.10 functionaries sat on chairs ranged along the wall, pretending to be invisible.
These cabinet meetings struck me as curious occasions: ponderous, oblique, with little open disagreement. Ministers would offer mini-statements of their position, not often supported by arguments. Much of the meeting would be taken up with a tour d’horizon from the foreign secretary, which usually didn’t add much to what we had all read in that morning’s newspapers. There seemed little predisposition to get down to any close analysis, still less to come to anything like a clear-cut conclusion.
Sometimes, in a smaller meeting of some subcommittee, Michael Scholar, one of her private secretaries, and I would be encouraged to come and sit at the sacred coffin-shaped table. Then I would find myself within squinting distance of Sir Robert Armstrong, the cabinet secretary, as he took notes for the minutes. He wrote in a fine rolling hand. The trouble was that it seemed to roll rather slowly. Quite often he was well behind the speaker, sometimes still finishing one speech halfway through the next.
Michael and I would later sharpen up the somewhat bland typed-up account of proceedings that came over to us from the Cabinet Office. Sir Robert, like his predecessors, was inclined to smooth over contentious statements and sometimes erase anything that would cause embarrassment if leaked. Yet the minutes were the cabinet’s sole authorised method of communication with the rest of Whitehall. The permanent secretary in each department had nothing else to take his instructions from. So our meddling with the text in the name of the prime minister, though certainly not authorised by her, was rather necessary – or so we thought.
Occasionally I would use Chequers to implant a fresh approach to policy. Cradled in the Chiltern hills, seduced by the country-house atmosphere, made giddy by the mere thought of being “down at Chequers”, the most suspicious and prickly minister began to melt. It was indeed a seductive excursion, tootling down the A41 with the roof down, then snaking through the surprisingly rural byways of Buckinghamshire, larks singing, the hedgerow honeysuckle in full fragrance, and then, that moment which never failed to make my heart skip, there at a break in the hedge in the most countrified lane was the little police station and the barrier and the Special Branch man leaning in at the car window to check your details.
In a moment you were transported from the world of Bertie Wooster to a bad spy thriller where an unnameable power lies at the end of the long avenue.
There are wonderful fleecy towels and unguents in your bathroom as in the best country-house hotels, except there are no guests visible. It is all too perfect and a little eerie. As you see women in RAF uniform bringing in the tea or stoking up the fire, you feel that you have been spirited away to a secret place where nobody will ever find you and terrible things may happen. The only member of staff in mufti is Vera Thomas, the redoubtable housekeeper, and you take it for granted that she is a full colonel in the SAS.
“Isn’t this a wonderful room? Don’t you feel relaxed as soon as you come through the door?” Mrs Thatcher gives these polite sentiments her usual forceful treatment as she bustles into the hall, but she carries no conviction at all. She is dressed much the same as she is in Downing Street, one less brooch perhaps and a cashmere scarf round her throat, but there is nothing in the least relaxed about her. Chequers is a place rather for redoubling one’s efforts, for getting back to it all in spades. There is to be no resting, let alone recreation.
Meetings continue all afternoon, and sometimes long after dinner, throughout the weekend until even her beautifully coiffed head begins to sink on to her briefing papers. It is at this moment that the celebrated tact of the higher reaches of the British civil service comes into play.
As it is a publicly declared dogma that the Iron Lady requires less sleep than other mortals and is never, ever, exhausted, it is Robin Butler’s role as her principal private secretary to rise to his feet, give a yawn and stretch his arms in an extravagant manner like a man using a chest expander and say, “Prime Minister, I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse me. I’m feeling extraordinarily tired” – at which the rest of us emit various yawns and sighs and say that, for some unaccountable reason, we feel a bit knocked out, too.
“You run along upstairs, then, and I can get on with these papers.” She makes a show of getting down to serious work as we troop off upstairs, but as I turn off the minstrels’ gallery towards my room, I catch sight of the little figure down below gathering up her things and going off to bed, her reputation for being indefatigable undented.
Her proudest boast at Chequers is that she has saved £5,000 a year by turning off the heating in the swimming pool. I doubt the thought of using the pool ever occurred to her. For someone so abounding in energy, she takes less physical exercise than anyone I have ever met.
She will delay until the last possible minute the breath of air she takes on the terrace before lunch. The other ministers are out there already, some of them halfway through their gin and tonics. As she comes out, they stand aside with a vaguely uneasy air. Her eager, waddling walk never carries her further than she can help, like a hen who hasn’t the slightest desire to leave the coop.
Her mother-hen aspect is always to the fore in her concern for her staff, even in the relentless routine of Downing Street.
“You’ve got a cold coming on, Ferdy.”
“No, I don’t think so, Prime Minister.”
“Yes, you have, I’m sure. You need some Redoxon.”
“Honestly, Prime Minister, I promise you I haven’t.”
It is 9.30pm and the meeting has already been going on for two hours and I have been groaning inwardly at the mind-numbing tedium of it all and unfortunately one of the groans has escaped.
“I’ve got some Redoxon in the flat. I’ll go and get it.”
“No, please don’t. I’m sure we’ve got some at home and anyway I don’t need it.”
“One always needs Redoxon.” And she shoots out of the room, up two and a half flights of stairs, to get me the blasted pills that I don’t need, while everyone else in the room looks furiously at me for causing this further delay.
It is hard to think of another prime minister in British history who would have insisted on interrupting a meeting and going to get the Redoxon herself. In fact, looking back on it, I think going upstairs to fetch it was the most sustained piece of physical exercise I ever saw her take.
But perhaps there was one sense in which the Chequers air did loosen her up a bit, not always for the better. She was more inclined to let her deeper, hidden feelings show. And I began to see how infuriating she could be when she was on the wrong side and wouldn’t admit it.
One of the rather crucial parts of our family policy programme was the taxation of husband and wife. The Treasury had long felt it was anachronistic that the taxman should treat married women as chattels of their husbands. They should be independent taxpayers entitled to their own tax allowances if they went out to work. Yet a policy to support the family should allow married women to choose whether to work or not, especially when they were bringing up children. There was an easy way to do this, by making the tax allowance fully transferable, so that a man with a wife at home would receive two tax allowances. This is the sort of system that happens in most other countries.
“Margaret, it’s the only answer,” said Geoffrey Howe, the chancellor. “Surely we believe in choice.”
“It’s much too expensive, Geoffrey. I simply can’t accept it. I can’t let the mill girls of Bolton down.”
“I don’t quite follow you, Margaret.”
“Well, there are these girls getting up at dawn and working all the hours God gives, and then they see these women in the home counties playing bridge and getting exactly the same tax allowance. I can’t have it.”
It was too late to point out that by now there weren’t any mill girls in Bolton because there weren’t any mills. I began to feel the depths not only of Mrs Thatcher’s loathing of sloth and privilege but of her indifference to family life. She was an individualist at heart who believed that effort alone was what counted and it was not for the government to offer any featherbedding or tolerance for those who could not or would not make the effort. I began to acknowledge in my heart that there was a harsh side to her view of life, which was both her strength and ultimately her weakness.
With infinite patience, Geoffrey repeated the arguments. She became ruder and more dismissive, scarcely troubling to listen any more but merely repeating what she had said half a dozen times already, until we were sick of the mythical mill girls of Bolton. I don’t think I have ever seen a boss being so unrelentingly rude to a senior colleague for so long.
Looking out of the beautifully restored bow window with God knows whose armorial bearings carved in the mullions, I longed to escape over the hills through the slowly circling cordon of security men.
Round the corner at that moment came Denis in his red baseball cap and matching golf jacket, swinging his eight iron. With ever-growing envy, I watched him line up half a dozen balls and, with his short, rather stiff swing, dispatch them over the ha-ha in the direction of the nearest policeman, who began to gather them up as a welcome diversion from the tedium of staring over the parkland. Even Denis, though, seemed like a disconsolate prisoner.