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The fall of Thatcher - inside the bunker

Big Ben History

11/04/18 • 32 min

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Who sees political history? Naturally one thinks it’s the politicians – but many may be almost as far away as any outsider. That’s certainly the case if you are in opposition – but even in power a cabinet minister can be remote from the action. Was Gordon Brown that involved in the Iraq war while head down at the Treasury? For the fall of Margaret Thatcher, her successor John Major, spent much of the time recuperating from a wisdom tooth operation. Recent interviews have rather persuaded me that officials get closer to the drama – especially if it the stage for the play is Downing Street.

Caroline Slocock, the only other woman in the room when Thatcher resigned, and author of People Like Us, put me in touch with two of her colleagues who also witnessed her resignation before a tearful cabinet.

Barry Potter and Dominic Morris were private secretaries for Mrs Thatcher who saw the dizzying events of November 1990 unfold from within, what they admit, had become a bunker. They spent the night in Downing St the day before her resignation writing her speech for the confidence vote called by Neil Kinnock for the next day. They somewhat strayed from their roles as civil servants by helping supportive MPs draft a last-ditch plea not to surrender. They saw her read her resignation statement – and watched her hours later in the Commons from the gallery sail through the no-confidence debate as if she’d just won an election, not lost one. They were with her when she found herself alone at the celebration drinks for John Major’s victory – on the verge of returning to the backbenches. And they dined with her on her very last night in Downing St – filling the time by discussing who would be in the next cabinet.

Their eye-witness vignettes convey the emotional turmoil. They reveal how inter-personal relations – in this case those between Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe – can bend history. They spot the role of accident – Thatcher may well have survived had her campaign manager Peter Morrison not been a bumbling, and possibly dieing, alcoholic. Maybe his role was comparable to Heseltine’s.

As officials they know policy also did for her. Barry Potter worked on the community charge or poll tax both at the Treasury and Number 10. It was a “disaster” – a tax that could not work – that somehow survived years of development to eventually unseat its’ chief supporter. He’s not sure she ever grasped what a poisoned pill it was.

Then there was the ERM. By 1990 Mrs Thatcher effectively didn’t believe in the main plank of her economic policy – and was in general isolated from her party on Europe. How could that possibly not blow up?

Finally there was her own role. Morris and Potter are huge admirers of Thatcher and loved working for her. But at the end she had become a caricature of her strengths – courage had become stubbornness, conviction a refusal to listen. Morris in vain gave her advice about how to save her skin – but canvassing for support was by then effectively beneath her.

Talking to them – there is no sense of the world of Yes Minister, where the civil service runs the show. Working for Margaret Thatcher, one person alone was in charge. But you do realise the officials see so much – and that their recollections are essential for the full story.


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