Ben Monro-Davies: “I think when women cry, often they are angry.” On this day, 30 years ago, Margaret Thatcher resigned

22 Nov

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.

Iain Dale: If Milling isn’t up to being Party Chairman, why was she appointed in the first place?

9 Oct

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I have to admit that I didn’t watch any of the Conservative virtual conference online. Judging by the number of registrations, it can be deemed a success. Twenty thousand people registered, and there were often more than 6,000 people watching.

I’m told fringe meetings proved more popular than the set-piece cabinet minister speeches (wasn’t it ever thus?) with some events, including those hosted by ConHome) attracting online audiences in four figures.

Given that normal fringe meetings might attract a couple of hundred people at most, this ought to give the conference organisers food for thought for the future. CCHQ told me this week that future conferences would almost certainly be hybrid events, and that’s exactly right. The more people who are able to take part, the better.

– – – – – – – – – –

Watching highlights of the US Vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, it almost seemed like normal politics had returned.

For the most part, the debate was conducted with mutual respect, good humour and dignity from both candidates. Yes, there were some interruptions, but that happens in debates. We had none of the abuse, insults and acrimony that characterised the debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden a week before.

And it wasn’t just the President who was guilty. We don’t know yet whether the next debate, due to take place in Florida next week, will go ahead. If it does, let’s hope that it’s more edifying than the first one.

– – – – – – – – – –

On Tuesday, I deputised for Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph.  I thought long and hard about writing what I did – but it had to be said.

I wrote about the role of the Party Chairman, and how its importance has diminished over the years, and how the present incumbent, Amanda Milling, was performing no useful role, except to travel the country and eat a few rubber chickens

It gave me no pleasure, and in many ways it’s not her fault. She’s performing the role dictated by Number Ten. She has no power to change anything, and scant little influence. Her co-chairman, Ben Elliot, is the one in control and we all know it.

The one role she could perform, but hasn’t got the experience to do, is to get out there on the media and be a lightning rod for the Prime Minister. That’s what Cecil Parkinson did. It’s what Norman Tebbit used to do. It’s what Brian Mawhinney did for John Major. And it’s what Brandon Lewis did for Theresa May.

Amanda Milling went on Any Questions last Friday, and proceeded to read out lines from her briefing notes. It was buttock-clenchingly embarrassing. A programme insider reckoned she was the worst guest they had had on in recent memory.

Again, in many ways, I don’t blame her for that. Everyone tells me that Milling was an excellent Deputy Chief Whip, but we all know that whips don’t do media, and don’t speak in the chamber.

So to appoint someone with little media experience as co-Party Chairman was bizarre to say the least. It did her no favours whatsoever. By all accounts, the Number Ten machine is frustrated by her performance. No shit, Sherlock. Well, they shouldn’t blame her for it, they should apportion the blame to the person who made the appointment.

– – – – – – – – – –

I was disappointed but not surprised to see Liam Fox fail to reach the final two in the race to become the next director general of the World Trade Organisation.

The EU was always determined to scupper him, which says far about them than it does about him. He is very well qualified to do the job, which will now be a straight fight between candidates from South Korea and Nigeria. Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s Foreign Minister, has spoken out and said the whole charade has not been “to the greater glory of the European Union”.

– – – – – – – – – –

Just as the Conservative Party has had to put its conference online, so have literary festivals – or at least some of them. I’ve done quite a few on Zoom over the last few months, but appeared in person last Saturday at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, as trailed on this site last week.

The event was organised it very well, ensuring that both speakers and audience were safe. Next Friday ,I’m doing the Bristol Festival of Ideas remotely, but the Wells Festival of Literature in person on the same day.

Then on Sunday October 18, I’m in Twickenham being interviewed on stage by LBC’s Steve Allen, and then on  October 24 in Diss, Norfolk.

On that occasion Brandon Lewis will interview me, which I suspect he’s going to relish, given he tells me I always give him such a hard time when he comes on my show. Ticketing details can be found here.

Profile: Olive, sorry, Oliver Dowden, saviour of the arts, bedrock insider – and unknown to the public

9 Jul

By far the greatest power of a Prime Minister is the power of patronage. He or she decides who to appoint to ministerial posts, and the Government prospers or fails largely as a result of whether these people prove able to rise to the level of events.

In February, Boris Johnson made Oliver Dowden Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Dowden is unknown to the wider public, and in ConservativeHome’s latest Cabinet league table is buried two-thirds of the way down the list, among a cluster of other ministers who have yet to become household names.

Leading figures in the arts had little faith he would be able to rescue their sector from the disastrous impact of Covid-19, and were getting ready to go mad at him with rage.

Instead of which he and Rishi Sunak astonished the world of the arts, at the start of this week, with a package of support for the arts which the leading figures queued up to praise.

As Charlotte Gill pointed out on ConHome, Dowden had been underestimated.

Here is a minister who knows how to get things done, including the tricky art of persuading the Treasury to part with the necessary funds.

Dowden is a professional politician, indeed a professional man of government: the kind of person at whom it is easy to sneer, but without whom nothing in Whitehall would move.

He succeeds partly because he does not seek to hog the limelight. There was no sense, as he announced the £1.57 billion support package for the arts, that this was being treated as something that would above all redound to the greater glory of the Secretary of State.

In photographs, it never seems this tall, friendly, fair-haired, respectable figure wants to outshine the other people in the picture.

In the words he uses, there is likewise a complete absence of any discernible urge to shine. “He is not an aphorist,” as one of his colleagues conceded, after ConHome remarked on the absence of a single memorable phrase in the Dowden record.

And yet those who know him well insist he is delightful company. One of them warned:

“I am sure you will not depict him as resembling in any way the dreary apparatchik that he might at first glance appear, having spent so much time behind the scenes at the Conservative Research Department and in the Cameron entourage before landing the safe seat that Cecil Parkinson once represented. He has a lightness of touch and charm that resemble Parkinson.

“His Canadian parents-in-law were at first reluctant to see their clever daughter married to an English politician; he soon won them round.

“He greets comments made to him with an infectious little laugh; I think this a most useful habit to have acquired or to be blessed with since birth: it creates an immediate impression of amiability and allows time to consider how best to reply.

“He is interested in bohemian ways without being drawn to participation in them. His best friend in the Research Department at the 2005 election was much given to cycling round London, drunk and naked, during the night.”

The safe seat in question, won by him in 2015 after he had defeated Sunak and others in the final of the contest to select the Conservative candidate, is Hertsmere, on the southern border of Hertfordshire.

In his maiden speech, he spoke with emotion of “the last unspoiled rolling hills of England before the home counties give way to London”, and said he is “absolutely determined to preserve them from soulless urban sprawl so that my children and grandchildren may enjoy them as I have done.”

He touched also on his constituency’s position “at the heart of the British film industry”, thanks to Elstree film studios in Borehamwood. But he went on:

“What characterises Hertsmere, far more than its landscape or its industry, is the character of its people. They get up very early every morning and from Bushey, Potters Bar, Radlett and Borehamwood they cram on to commuter trains or set off along the M25 and the A1. They are hard-working men and women who make sacrifices to provide for themselves, their families and their community. They know that in this life, we do not get something for nothing; we have to work in order to get something out.

“Growing up locally, I was very much imbued with those values. My dad worked in a factory in Watford, my mum at a chemist’s in St Albans. They worked hard and were determined to give me the very best start in life. That started with the excellent education that I received at my local comprehensive school.”

He was born in 1978 and went to Parmiter’s School, founded in 1681 in Bethnal Green and now at Garston, near Watford. Its motto is “Nemo sibi nascitur”, “No one is born unto himself alone”, and from here he won a place to read law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

Dowden played no part in student politics, and decided not to be a lawyer. He taught English in Japan, had a stint at LLM, a lobbying firm set up by Labour figures close to Gordon Brown, and in 2004 became head of the Political Section in the Conservative Research Department.

Soon after his arrival, one of his colleagues recalls,

“He became known as Olive through a typographical error which he embraced with characteristic good humour. It almost sounds wrong to call him Oliver if you’ve known him of old.”

Another friend from that period said this week:

“I will call him Olive or I will call him Secretary of State, but I will not call him Oliver.”

Dowden, as he will continue to be called here, displayed an early flair for understanding how a story would play out in the press. He could see the weaknesses in both the Labour and the Conservative position, so could operate in an attacking role – spotting, for example, the potential of the cash for honours story to embarrass the Labour Government – and also defensively, briefing ministers on the line to take when they went on programmes such as Any Questions and Question Time.

He is an enormously experienced insider, who has helped prepare four successive leaders – Michael Howard, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson – for Prime Minister’s Questions.

Cameron relates in his memoirs that in 2009, during the MPs’ expenses scandal,

“I set up an internal scrutiny panel, a so-called Star Chamber, including my aide Oliver Dowden, known as ‘Olive’, who I also called ‘the undertaker’, since he so frequently brought me the bad news.”

Another witness says:

“During the expenses scandal, CRD had to triage some of the cases, taking what The Telegraph was accusing people of and working out the truth. It was a long, gruelling period, relentless, it went on for weeks and it was bleak work, the team being set against itself.”

He became “a bedrock figure”, as one former minister puts it, “stable, sensible, unflappable, extraordinarily decent”, in the group which saw Cameron into Number Ten and then sustained him there, with Dowden as Ed Llewellyn’s deputy.

Few people understand better than Dowden how the government machine works, or fails to work. He is not an ideologue, or a bold political thinker, or a stirring orator, but he has sound judgement and knows how to get things done. As one colleague puts it,

“He’s one of the most impressive people I’ve ever been in a room with officials with. At the end he will establish what has been agreed and what we are going to do.”

As an MP since 2015, “he commutes in like his constituents – he puts in the long hours”. His website shows him defending their interests with tenacity.

In the 2016 EU Referendum he was a Remainer, but in the immediate aftermath he supported Boris Johnson for the leadership, which infuriated Theresa May’s team.

Not until January 2018 was he permitted to take his first step on the ministerial ladder, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office.

In the summer of 2019, Dowden, Sunak and Robert Jenrick interviewed Johnson for an hour at Jenrick’s house, after which they put their names to a joint piece for The Times Red Box, which appeared under the headline:

“The Tories are in deep peril. Only Boris Johnson can save us.”

This endorsement by three junior ministers, none of whom was suspected of maverick tendencies, helped convince many waverers that Johnson was on course for victory. Collectively they had become significant players, and all three of them are now in the Cabinet.

Dowden is only 41. Will he go higher? Lord Lexden, official historian to the Conservative Party and the Carlton Club, says of him:

“I am rather inclined to the view that he may well establish himself as the Rab Butler of his time, indispensable in any Tory government, but without Butler’s hesitancy if the chance of the premiership should arise.”