Ben Monro-Davies is an Executive Producer at Sky News and has previously work at the BBC and Channel 4 News. He is the host of the podcast Big Ben History, which discusses the past at Westminster.
All remember it vividly. They arrived not entirely sure what was about to happen, awaiting her in the ante room. Her Principal Private Secretary, Andrew Turnbull, briefly panicked: he’d forgotten to tell ministers the right time, such was the silence as he and the soon to resign Prime Minister approached. But as they turned the corner – he and she saw them all there – in his words, “pressed back, looking at their shoes.”
The meeting was earlier than usual – bought forward not because of the end of an eleven year premiership – but for the memorial service for Libby Douglas Home, the wife of Alec. Many went straight to St Paul’s Cathedral afterwards – William Waldegrave remembers the surreal juxtaposition of them singing All Things Bright and Beautiful with the choir just an hour afterwards.
Some had anticipated what was about to happen. The Cabinet secretary, Robin Butler, realised the night before that it was all over. He was keen to “stage manage” proceedings. “I didn’t want there to be a hiatus with nobody knowing what to do.” On November 21st, he drafted a tribute on behalf of the Cabinet – and asked James Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, to read it. He chose Mackay as someone who was clearly not going to succeed her.
Lord Mackay – today still active in the Lords in his nineties – reflects that he, the son of railway signal man, had “strangely enough become number two in the cabinet, and I was sitting next to the Prime Minister.”
He remembers Thatcher reading her statement and breaking down. Cecil Parkinson spoke up, saying: “the Lord Chancellor will read it for you.” Two members of her staff, Barry Potter and Dominic Morris recall Parkinson adding “you don’t have to do this”. Mackay says he responded firmly: “no : the Lord Chancellor will not read it for you, The Prime Minister will read it herself.” Others recall her stumbling to the end – and then saying “I had better do that again”, and reliving the grief once more.
When I first became interested in this most dramatic of meetings, I’d assumed that was that. With a twenty-first century sensibility towards job termination, it already required imagination to grasp a scenario in which you’d have to read out your resignation to the men who’d called time on your career the day before.
But the meeting was not over. It was still a Cabinet gathering with an agenda. So with some ministers such as the Home Secretary, David Waddington, in tears, the meeting moved on – albeit with some constitutional as well as emotional awkwardness.
Her Party Chairman, Kenneth Baker, remembers a break for coffee, and a revived Iron Lady then telling the cabinet “on no account must Heseltine be elected” – an instruction he calls “inappropriate”. That was exactly what some of those in the meeting did want. Butler felt obliged to “soften” the Cabinet minutes to record a general exhortation to carry on the work of her government.
Tom King, then Defence Secretary, was moved by the scene. He’d found her very supportive during his time in Northern Ireland office, and remembers her kindly taking him aside after his mother died. By contrast, he doubts his previous boss, Ted Heath, ever knew his name. He also considered himself as the possible next Prime Minister. “The truth was at that moment four or five of us could have come through as her successor. That’s the reality. “
But he was also next on the Cabinet agenda – outlining the biggest military deployment since World War II to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. This was effectively a war cabinet meeting, and the British machinery of government was navigating the defenestration of its leader and a massive military engagement at the same time.
The less historic was attended to as well. No-one understandably remembers, but in her memoirs Thatcher describes an item on “an unsuccessful Fisheries Council ruined by incompetent Italian chairmanship”. It’s confirmed in the minutes. The State was remorselessly executing the tasks in hand,
There were only two women in the room: Thatcher, and Caroline Slocock, then a private secretary in Downing St. She was not politically sympathetic to Thatcherism, and to her disappointment had been denied the position on a permanent basis. She later discovered that Thatcher had been behind this.
Nevertheless, she remembers the meeting as “pure torture. I was only the other woman in the room. To my shock I started to cry. I hadn’t even brought in a handkerchief. It was the extraordinary loss of power. “
But as a woman, there was another perspective. “It was also the anger. I think when women cry, often they are angry. I think she was probably very angry with these men. The scene has haunted me ever since.” By the end of that day, she recalls there being no tissue paper in the women’s bathroom.
Slocock was right. Thatcher was angry and made little secret of it afterwards. Peter Lilley thinks he was the only cabinet minister present at the launch of her memoirs which eviscerated her former colleagues as “men in lifeboats”.
As to how it had come to this, there are the common observations that longevity breeds detachment. Having so often been proved right at the ballot box, it became harder for her to accept she might be wrong, most notably on the poll tax. Lilley feared she might ask him to rescue it, and warned his wife he would have to return to the backbenches because he believed the policy wrongheaded.
But more bespoke episodes are identified. All bring up a cabinet meeting just a few days before, where she humiliated Geoffrey Howe needlessly over an issue of the parliamentary timetable. Malcom Rifkind says “he was the Deputy Prime Minister and she tore him into as if he were an errant schoolboy. That was a disgrace.”
Howe resigned shortly afterwards, triggering the events that led to a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine. Charles Moore in his authorised biography of Thatcher concludes that Howe was going to resign anyway. But in two Cabinet meetings in November 1990 ministers spent much of it, in Kenneth Baker’s words, “staring at the blotters on their desks.”
And one name forgotten name comes up again and again. Peter Morrison was her Parliamentary Private Secretary who was tasked with her leadership campaign. Michael Howard says: “He was frankly hopeless. I remember ringing Peter up, and asking is there anything I can do to help? ‘No, no, no he said, it’s all under control old boy, there’s nothing you can do.’ It was a disaster.” Morrison was an alcoholic who died five years later, and the current Independent Child Sex Abuse inquiry has heard claims that he was also a sex offender.
Thatcher was forced into a fatal second ballot by a handful of votes – hearing the news In Paris at a conference with world leaders to mark the end of the Cold War. She’d played a crucial role in defeating the Soviet Union, but neglected to appoint the right general to deal with her own troops. Barry Potter blames a weakness for “posh men.” Andrew Turnbull adds she liked them also to be “tall.” Morrison fitted both categories.
And for all the drama of the final cabinet meeting , it’s worth noting the absence of three central actors. Michael Heseltine was of course challenging from the backbenches. Geoffrey Howe was there with him, for the first time since 1979. And the Chancellor of Exchequer was also missing. John Major was at home recuperating from having his wisdom teeth removed. The next cabinet meeting he attended was as Prime Minister.