Review: The Slow Downfall of Margaret Thatcher by Bernard Ingham

Posted On: 
11th September 2019

Although short on revelations, John Whittingdale MP finds Bernard Ingham’s account of the dying days of the Thatcher Government an entertaining read

Margaret Thatcher and Bernard Ingham (right) at a press conference with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, USSR, June 1990
Credit: 
PA

Bernard Ingham served as Margaret Thatcher’s Press Secretary in 10 Downing Street for 11 years. Having flirted with the idea in his youth of becoming a Labour candidate, he joined her just a few months after she became Prime Minister and only left a few weeks after she stepped down. He had a unique insight and his biography, Kill the Messenger, published in 1991, provides a fascinating account.

This book covers only the last two years of her time in office, a period throughout which I was working alongside Bernard as the Prime Minister’s Political Secretary. Unlike today, the staff in Number Ten then was small with only about five who saw her for several hours each day. I was the only Political appointee among the Prime Minister’s staff and the Political office consisted of just the PPS, myself and two secretaries. The Press Office, as Bernard observes, numbered eight in total, compared with well over 50 today.

These were the days before mobile phones, social media and 24-hour news. The ‘lobby’ of political correspondents received their daily briefings and worked to fixed deadlines. On overseas trips, accompanying press had to wait until telephone lines became available before they could file their copy. The relationship between Bernard and these journalists was close, if not always harmonious. His catchphrase “bunkum and balderdash” was frequently uttered at them.

'He conveys well the hectic pace of events' 

As if acting as the Prime Minister’s spokesman was not enough, Bernard was also appointed Head of the Government Information Service, a role he took seriously and which was demanding and time-consuming – although a lot of this seems to have been spent on giving drinks parties for GIS staff (23 recorded in the book). Although he was extraordinarily close to her, he was always a civil servant and was scrupulous in observing the division between her role as Prime Minister and as Leader of a Political Party. Anything which fell the other side of that line, he passed to me.

For those seeking new revelations about the Thatcher Government’s dying days, this book provides few. However, it does convey well the hectic pace of events and the sheer number and weight of issues with which the Prime Minister and her staff had to deal. Bernard’s account is not dissimilar to one of his lobby briefings in that it sets out in detail the events of each day while giving away little about them.

Much of each week was framed by regular events. On Monday, there was the ‘Week Ahead Meeting’ and then each day the morning meeting which was spent discussing that day’s press based on the ‘Summary’ which Bernard had prepared at 7.00am. Margaret Thatcher took the view that anything she read in the Press was bound to be bad and so she relied completely on Bernard’s summary to learn how they were judging her and her government.

Prime Minister’s Questions took place twice each week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Although lasting just 15 minutes, the amount of time required in preparation was as great whatever the length – at least six hours of her time for every session. Speech writing also occupied hours, if not days.

Bernard’s capacity for work was second only to Margaret Thatcher herself and he usually was at work for at least 16 hours each day. Frequently, he complains about the toll that it is taking but he also clearly got huge comfort from his family and friends. His love of gardening, of watching sport and of revisiting his beloved Yorkshire all feature throughout the book. His holidays driving through the US, France, Germany and Austria are also recorded in detail along with the meals enjoyed on the way.

Readers will be familiar with many of the big events that led up to Margaret Thatcher’s downfall. The resignations of Nicholas Ridley, Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe are all highlighted but little detail provided of the Prime Minister’s reaction or the arguments that led to these. Bernard’s view of particular politicians is mentioned in passing: John Wakeham, John Major and David Waddington come out well; David Howell, Cecil Parkinson, Ken Baker and particularly Geoffrey Howe, less so. There is however a good sense of the mounting opposition and panic on the backbenches which led eventually to her fall.

Some causes that Margaret Thatcher chose to fight she was bound to lose. His description of her opposition to televising Parliament seems extraordinary today. Her fight against German reunification is also hard to understand although I too recall that it was strongly felt. This even reached the extent of her backing Argentina against Germany in the World Cup Final, as Bernard describes.

He also rightly observes aspects of Margaret Thatcher’s character which few outsiders saw. She regularly invited him for a drink at the end of a long day in the flat as she did me on a number of occasions. He too experienced her anxiety not to be late which frequently led to her arriving far too early as I can recall having several times sat with her in the car in a layby until it was appropriate to arrive.

For students of the Thatcher Government, this book is useful if not essential. However, it is an entertaining read by a remarkable civil servant whose loyalty and service to his employer was beyond compare.

John Whittingdale is Conservative MP for Maldon