How Mrs Thatcher personally paid son Mark's bar tab and the 1,800 cost of his rescue operation after he went missing during Paris-Dakar rally
16:56 GMT, 28 December 2012
After her son Mark got lost in the desert competing in the Paris-Dakar rally, Margaret Thatcher shed a rare tear in public.
When it came to paying for his rescue, however, the 'Iron Lady' was firmly back in the driving seat and at pains to ensure she personally, not taxpayers, footed the bill for her hapless off-spring's misadventure.
With questions being asked in Parliament about the cost of the operation, she ordered a breakdown of Foreign Office expenses… and a bar tab from a hotel in Algeria, where her husband Denis stayed with British officials after he joined the hunt, fell under the spotlight, previously secret files reveal.
Margaret Thatcher shed a tear in public when son Mark went missing in the Algerian desert in 1982
Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher's 28-year-old son Mark, and his co-driver Anne-Charlotte Verney during the 1982 during the Paris to Dakar car rally
Denis' penchant for a 'snifter' is already well known, of course. When Mark, rescued after six days missing in the Sahara in January 1982, arrived at the same hotel in the oasis city of Tamanrassett 'almost certainly, the liberal dispensation of drinks to all and sundry' ensued, the papers say.
The bill for the 'British delegation' totalled over 11,500 Algerian dinars – equivalent to around 260 in today's money – with drinks 'about a third' of the total.
It also included rooms and meals for Mark, then 28, his French co-driver Charlotte Verney, a four times French women's motor racing champion, who went missing with him, members of the Algerian rescue team who saved them both, Denis and British diplomats.
But the hotel manager had earlier declared the drinks 'on the house', according to the papers. So before leaving, a British vice consul asked for the bill to be fully itemised as 'all official expenditure had to be properly accounted for' – only to be told by the receptionist that was 'impossible'.
As the rest of the party had left, the diplomat 'may have betrayed his concern', the files released by the National Archives say. A local police escort intervened, made 'several' phone calls – and the receptionist then announced there was nothing to pay at all.
The presentation of the bill 'could quite well have been an administrative bungle', the files suggest, as the Algerian authorities' 'generosity in relieving us of total bill' would be characteristic of how they treat 'distinguished visitors'.
Mark Thatcher with his co-driver Charlotte Verney after being rescued from being marooned in the Sahara Desert for six days
Mark Thatcher at Tamanrasset airport as he arrives and joins his father who was waiting for two days. Mark had been lost in the Paris-Dakar rally in the Sahara desert
Margaret Thatcher insisted on paying nearly 2,000 towards the search for her son after he went missing in the Sahara desert amid concerns of a public backlash over taxpayers' money being used, newly-released files reveal
With that matter resolved, the Foreign Office calculated their costs for other accommodation, travel, telegrams and telephone calls to be 1,191.
No charges were made to official funds 'other than those which would be so charged in case of assistance for any UK citizens in distress', the papers made public for the first time under the 30 year rule say.
In a handwritten note dated February 12, 1982, a month after Mark's rescue, to John Coles, the Prime Minister's Private Secretary for Overseas Affairs, Mrs Thatcher wrote: 'I must pay the 1,191. We can therefore say that no extra cost has fallen on the British taxpayer. To who do I make out the cheque' The Foreign Office later revised the total to 1,748.80. Mrs Thatcher duly sent them a cheque for that amount on March 10. Ever a keen advocate of financial discipline, she requested a 'receipt please'.
But it did not end there. Six months later the Foreign Office apologetically asked her for a further 15.16 for 'landing charges incurred by the aircraft bringing Denis Thatcher from the UK', explaining there had been a delay because of 'the Embassy accountant charging them to a suspense account which has only now been audited.' Another cheque from the Prime Minister was swiftly despatched.
Mark's team had been travelling in a white Peugeot 504 in convoy with two other cars but became separated after stopping to repair a steering arm. At dusk, lost and now also with a shattered rear axle casing, they set up camp and stopped to wait for help.
The British role in the search and rescue was 'minimal' because of the 'generosity of others, especially the Government of Algeria'. It was a search plane belonging to them that spotted Mark, 31 miles off route but unharmed, and they did not ask the British Government to pay any costs.
Mark Thatcher once said: 'The biggest story of 1982 was the Falklands war. The second biggest also involved my mother… and me.' Baroness Thatcher's maternal tears for her missing son were the only time she is known to have cried until she left office eight years later.
Meanwhile, Sir Denis, who died in 2003, seemed unaffected by the drama, saying all he needed was 'a beer and a sandwich, a bath and a shave' after Mark was rescued.