FROM THE ARCHIVES: What Really Happened at Margaret Thatcher's Final Cabinet Meeting
1 Apr 2018 at 09:00
Some time ago, back in 2006, I had intended to write a book about the month leading up to Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power. Part of the incentive to do so was that there seemed to be so many conflicting accounts of what actually happened. I knew I would be able to get access to all the leading players and was looking forward to the challenge. In order to provide a putative publisher with a sample chapter I set about researching what happened at the meeting of the cabinet on 22 November at which Margaret Thatcher announced her resignation. In the end I never wrote the book as a new job intervened, which meant I did not have the time to continue the project. It’s deliberately written as a dramatic, rather than a dry, historical account, but the dialogue and events are as accurate as I could make them.
At 6.30am two men arrived at the gates of Downing Street asking to be let in to see the Prime Minister. The policeman on the gate phoned through to Charles Powell, who was already at his desk. The two turned out to be Tory backbenchers Michael Brown and Edward Leigh. Powell gave them coffee and explained the PM was dressing and asked them to wait. They waited and waited – in vain. They were still there when the Cabinet convened at 9am. They were only put out of their misery when the PM’s Political Secretary John Whittingdale told them what they had already guessed. She was resigning. Tears streamed down Brown’s face as he left Number Ten through a back door, thus avoiding waiting TV cameras in Downing Street.
At 7am Cecil Parkinson was barely awake. The shrilling of the telephone put paid to that. It was one of his junior Ministers and a key member of the No Turning Back Group, Chris Chope. “She’s going,” he said. “You’ve got to do something”. Parkinson had last seen the PM at 6pm the previous evening, before her confidence had been shattered by the meetings with her Cabinet members. So confident was he that she was heading for victory, and that the Cabinet was supporting her, he went out to dinner with his wife and some friends. A few hours earlier, The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh had got wind of what was about to happen and had rung the Parkinson house to check if he knew anything. Parkinson had already gone to bed and his wife Ann, a close personal friend of the PM, said she didn’t want to waken him. Had she done so, there is little doubt that Parkinson would have hot-footed it to Downing Street.
After Chope’s phone call Parkinson immediately phoned Number Ten, only to be told that the PM was under the hair dryer and that he should phone back in thirty minutes. In desperation he then phoned his friend of twenty years standing Norman Tebbit. Tebbit had been with her until late the previous night working on her speech for the Censure debate. He told Parkinson the game was up and that her mind would not be changed. Parkinson decided it was pointless to phone Number Ten again.
By 7.30am Andrew Turnbull had been at his desk for an hour already. He sat there unable to concentrate. He spoke to the Prime Minister several times a day, but he knew their next conversation would probably be a fairly momentous one. The call came. It was the news he had expected, as the Prime Minister asked him to put in place the formal arrangements for her resignation announcement. The next call he made was to the Palace to arrange for the formalities of an audience with the Queen.
Woodrow Wyatt called to make a last ditch attempt to make the PM change her mind but for once, she wouldn’t take his call. In fact, she didn’t take calls from anyone until after the Vote of Censure debate was over, later in the afternoon.
Peter Morrison phoned Douglas Hurd and John Major to advise them of the Prime Minister’s decision. John Wakeham and Kenneth Baker were also tipped off by Morrison.
Shortly after 8am Denis Thatcher phoned his daughter. “There have been all sorts of consultations and your mother…”. Carol interrupted him. “I know, Dad”. Nothing further was said.
At 8.30 every Thursday morning it was usual for the Prime Minister to hold a short briefing in preparation for Prime Minister’s Question Time. As usual, Bernard Ingham , Charles Powell and John Whittingdale were with her. It was a subdued meeting and no one was really concentrating.
The regular Thursday Cabinet meetings were a matter of routine for most of those who attended them. This one was different. Cabinet meetings normally start at 10.30am but this one had been brought forward so as not to clash with a memorial service for Lady Home, which was to be held later in the morning at St Margaret’s Church, opposite the Houses of Parliament. Normally, the Cabinet would gather for coffee fifteen minutes before the meeting and gossip about the latest political machinations, before the Prime Minister would rush into the room, apparently always in a hurry. That was the signal for the rest of them to take their seats around the famous oval table.
But on this morning the atmosphere was strained to say the least. The few remaining Thatcher loyalists eyed up the rest of their Cabinet colleagues and could barely bring themselves to speak. In her memoirs, Margaret Thatcher recalls: “They stood with their backs against the wall looking in every direction except mine.” According to Cecil Parkinson Kenneth Clarke was the only one who was showing the remotest sign of life, telling “anybody who cared to listen that if the PM did not resign before noon that day, he would do so himself”.
Thatcher’s arrival was normally the signal for everyone to file into the room and take their places, but it seemed there was a delay. John MacGregor had been held up in traffic. The awkward silence continued for an unbearable ten minutes. At 9.10 the Cabinet filed in. The PM was in her usual chair, half way along the table in front of the fireplace. They took their places in silence – even the sound of the chairs being pulled back seemed to grate. For the first time in living memory, the woman who had dominated her Cabinet for 11 years seemed powerless. The aura had gone. Still, there was silence. Cecil Parkinson noticed her reddened, swollen eyes. A carton of tissues sat next to her on the table. While the Cabinet were taking their seats she picked a tissue from the box and dabbed her eyes. The dreadful silence continued. Slowly, Margaret Thatcher opened her handbag and pulled out a creased piece of paper. The Cabinet knew what was coming, but the performance had to be played out nonetheless. She read in a slow, halting, and emotional manner:-
“Having consulted widely among my colleagues, I have concluded that the unity of the Party and the prospects of victory in a general election would be better served if I stood down to enable cabinet colleagues to enter the ballot for the leadership. I should like to thank all those in the Cabinet and outside who have given me such dedicated support.”
She faltered several times and broke down sobbing. She wasn’t the only one. David Waddington, Tony Newton, John Gummer, Michael Howard and John Wakeham were all in tears. Cecil Parkinson later wondered why Mr Wakeham should be so upset, when it was he, in Parkinson’s opinion, who had largely brought about the events they were witnessing.
Half way through the statement she was so upset that Cecil Parkinson, already on a light fuse, shouted to the Lord Chancellor, who was sitting to her left: “For Christ’s sake you read it, James”. Lord Mackay briefly put his arm round her shoulder and said gently, “Let me read it, Prime Minister”. This brief interjection broke the unbearable tension and allowed the Prime Minister a few moments to gather herself. She stiffened both in resolve and body language and said, “No! I can read it myself”.
Norman Lamont recalls her “referring to the events of the last few days and to the advice she had had ‘from so many of you’ that she could not win and should not fight on. The way she put it implied that she did not agree and thought us spineless”. It was after these words that the worst breakdown occurred.
James MacKay, the Lord Chancellor, then read out a short tribute to the Prime Minister. She listened, eyes glistening and red and broke down again. She regained composure and told the Cabinet they must unite behind a candidate to beat Michael Heseltine. “We must protect what we believe in,” she flashed.
Kenneth Baker then spoke in his capacity as Chairman of the Party. “You have and will always continue to have the love and loyalty of the party. You have a very special place in the heart of the party. You have led us to victory three times and you would have done so again. Those who have served you recognise that they have been in touch with greatness”. He, also, was close to tears.
Douglas Hurd referred to this “whole wretched business” and said he wanted to put on record the superb way in which the Prime Minister had conducted business at the Paris conference, particularly with regard to the pressures of the leadership election on her.
The Prime Minister then called a halt, saying she could deal with routine matters but not sympathy. She was still in a highly emotional state and felt she might lose her composure entirely if such tributes went on for much longer.
She ended proceedings by telling the Cabinet that any new leader would have her total and devoted support. It was assumed this did not include Michael Heseltine. “Well, now that’s out of the way, let’s get on with the rest of the business,” she said.
The meeting then broke for ten minutes and coffee was served while courtesy calls were made to the other party leaders and the Speaker. The atmosphere was considerably lighter than at the preceding the meeting. A formal statement was issued by the Downing Street Press Office at 9.25.
The Cabinet then resumed and quickly skimmed through the rest of the normal agenda by 10.15. The final decision taken was to send an armoured brigade to the Gulf. Douglas Hurd’s mind was elsewhere though. He knew that events would move fast. Kenneth Baker passed a note to Hurd asking if he had come to an agreement with John Major about the candidacy. Hurd sent a note back saying they were issuing a joint statement declaring that they had worked closely together in the past but the best way of uniting the party was to let both their names go forward in the next ballot. He then passed the draft statement to Baker who regarded it as a “perfectly masterful composition”. Hurd then tried to catch Tom King’s eye to as if he would act as his proposer on the second ballot. King didn’t get the hint.
By the close of the meeting the Prime Minister was close to tears again, according to Kenneth Baker. She invited Ministers to stay behind for yet more coffee. By now she was fully composed and was keen to know her colleagues’ views on what might happen in the second ballot.
No one was keen to be the first to leave, although Douglas Hurd didn’t hang around long. Cecil Parkinson’s most vivid memory from the conversation after over coffee was when somebody – allegedly Kenneth Clarke – said “we are going to pin regicide on Heseltine”. For a moment the PM looked puzzled and issued a devastating reply: “Oh no, it wasn’t Heseltine, it was the Cabinet.” Parkinson says this was said without the slightest hint of rancour. “It was, to her, a simple statement of fact”, he says. Douglas Hurd, however, had other things on his mind and left immediately. Norman Lamont caught Michael Howard’s eye. They were both anxious to go. While Heseltine was out there campaigning, important time was being lost. After what seemed an age, Margaret Thatcher sensed what others were thinking and told everyone to leave and “stop Heseltine”.
As the Cabinet trooped out of Downing Street, Kenneth Baker, ever with an eye for the TV cameras, made a short statement outside the door of Number Ten, saying: “This is a typically brave and selfless decision by the Prime Minister. Once again Margaret Thatcher has put her country and the Party’s interests before personal considerations. This will allow the Party to elect a new leader to unite the Party and build upon her immense successes. If I could just add a personal note, I am very saddened that our greatest peace-time Prime Minister has left Government. She is an outstanding leader, not only of our country but also of the world. I do not believe we will see her like again”
John Wakeham followed suit. Asked about her mood, he said “Well, her mood is, like always, she does her duty, she’s – of course she’s sad.” It was rather an understatement.
While Denis attended the memorial service for Lady Home, the Prime Minister – for she still held that office – was driven to Buckingham Palace informing the Queen in person of her decision to resign. It was not a long audience. The Prime Minister was well aware she had the speech of her life to make in the House of Commons in just a few hours time. It was to be an occasion she, and the country, would have cause to remember for many years to come.
My new book, MARGARET THATCHER: IN HER OWN WORDS is a collection of her speeches, interviews and quotes. It’s a rather chunky 436 page paperback is should be in bookshops this week. An ideal Christmas present to your Labour supporting wife or husband :).