You can't say that, I told her – it's too rude
00:19 GMT, 9 April 2013
07:02 GMT, 9 April 2013
In the twice-weekly battles at Prime Minister’s Questions, NORMAN TEBBIT recalls how no other Opposition leader had ever worked so hard or so purposefully.
He realised Margaret Thatcher could absorb facts like a sponge — and could squeeze them out just as easily.
Although she had to be persuaded not to use expressions with double (usually sexual) meanings…
Survivors: Norman Tebbit with wife Lady Margaret Tebbit who was left paralysed after the IRA attack on the Grand Hotel, Brighton, which attempted to assassinate Margaret Thatcher in 1984
Margaret Thatcher and I had been close friends as well as colleagues before the 1984 Brighton bombing, but that experience caused us to become even closer — although it also led to my decision to leave her government.
She was deeply aware that while she had escaped, many of her friends had died, been wounded or bereaved.
She did not have a natural bedside manner and both my wife Margaret and I remember clearly one visit to Stoke Mandeville, where my wife was being treated for serious injuries.
Her spirits were low and she was not feeling sociable despite Margaret Thatcher’s efforts.
‘I don’t think she feels like talking at the moment,’ I said. ‘Then I’ll wait until she does,’ came the reply.
And so she did, for more than two hours, not saying a word until my Margaret felt able to talk.
I had been in the Commons for five years, I hardly knew Margaret
Thatcher until Airey Neave (later murdered by the INLA, a Republican
terror group) recruited me into her campaign team when she stood
successfully for leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975.
I found that our approach to politics was very similar. ‘We know what works and we know what doesn’t. Let’s do what does.’
However, she was at first no match for Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the twice-weekly battles at Prime Minister’s Questions.
political strategist Gordon Reece was coaching her to lower the pitch
of her voice, changing her dress and hairstyle. But our job was about
winning in that bearpit, the House of Commons.
‘The Gang of Four’ after Madame Mao’s entourage, Airey Neave, Michael
Dobbs (a political researcher), Geoffrey Pattie MP and I helped Margaret
to draft her questions.
had to be short, unambiguous and difficult to dodge. There had to be
follow-up questions ready for whatever reply she got. And Tory
backbenchers had to be primed with follow-up questions, too.
No other Opposition leader had ever
worked so hard or so purposefully before. I realised Margaret Thatcher
could absorb facts like a sponge — and could squeeze them out just as
Close friends: Tebbit with Mrs Thatcher at the Blackpool conference in 1981
At first, Thatcher was no match for Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the twice-weekly battles at Prime Minister's Questions. But our job was about winning in that bearpit, the House of Commons
The fun came when she had to be
persuaded not to use expressions with double (usually sexual) meanings.
‘No Margaret. You can’t say that,’ I would say.
‘Why not’ she would demand.
‘Because you can’t — they would all laugh, but don’t ask me to explain,’ I would reply.
‘Oh, men!’ she used to respond.
1981, after I had spent two years as a junior Trade Minister, Mrs
Thatcher promoted me to be Keith Joseph’s second-in-command at the
Department of Industry. Keith was a great political thinker, but
frequently ended up worst off in Commons political exchanges or with the
No other Opposition leader had ever worked so hard or so purposefully before. Margaret Thatcher could absorb facts like a sponge – and could squeeze them out just as easily
Margaret Thatcher was generally very thoughtful to those working for her, but sometimes forgot that not all of us had her single-minded, boundless energy
‘Norman,’ she said. ‘They are so horrid to dear Keith. He needs someone to look after him.’
It was so typical of her, placing people where their talents could best be combined.
Alas, she was not always as good a judge of men’s characters as she was of their abilities, and in her later years as Prime Minister often fell for smooth flatterers, disloyal to her personally and to her ideas.
Margaret Thatcher was generally very thoughtful to those working for her, but sometimes forgot that not all of us had her single-minded, boundless energy. I recollect her buttonholing me in the division lobby during a 10pm vote.
‘Norman, I have just got the draft of a speech and it is awful. Could you rewrite it for me’
‘Certainly, Margaret. When is it for’
‘Tomorrow lunchtime. I’ll see you in the office right away.’
At around 3am and the umpteenth draft, she caught me yawning.
‘Oh dear, Norman, you do look tired this evening.’
‘It isn’t evening. It’s tomorrow bloody morning,’ I replied. We eventually finished around dawn.
In every way, Margaret Thatcher was decisive. She once rang to invite me and my wife to Christmas lunch at Chequers. I thanked her, but explained that we had our family coming. ‘How many’ she inquired. ‘Seven of us in all,’ I replied. ‘Bring them all,’ she commanded. So I did.
In government we grew closer together, and in 1983 I was made Secretary for Employment — a post known as ‘the bed of nails’.
Strikes had brought down both Ted Heath’s and Jim Callaghan’s governments, and the union leaders were spoiling for a fight to preserve what they claimed to be a right to veto government policies.
Neither Margaret Thatcher nor I believed we could make a deal with the TUC. She left me in no doubt that my job was to disarm the unions, an idea most people thought highly desirable but impossible.
At the Cabinet meeting to consider my proposals, I realised that the majority thought they would start a war we could not win. The Prime Minister let the discussion run. The Cabinet Secretary was noting those in favour and those against. So was I.
Margaret Thatcher was deeply aware that while she had escaped the 1984 Brighton bombings, many of her friends had died, been wounded or bereaved
So it was something of a surprise when Margaret Thatcher looked at the list, then closed the discussion saying: ‘Thank you. It is clear Cabinet supports the Secretary for Employment’s proposals and he has approval to bring forward his legislation.’
It was that courage, that willingness to back a colleague, which made her a great Prime Minister.
At the time of the Brighton bombing I was Secretary for Trade and Industry — a job that often brought its encumbents into sharp disagreement with her.
Certainly, I had my stand-up rows. There was one monumental one which I ended by saying, as I left: ‘I will always do any job you ask of me. If you lose confidence in me I will go without fuss or hard feelings. But while you leave me in the job, trust my advice, not that of those without the responsibility of the job. Please let me know your decision.’
Nigel Lawson's resignation in October 1989 was a terrible blow to Thatcher. Only a few years earlier she had told me: 'As long as Nigel, you and I stick together, we can do anything'
She gave way and never referred to the row again. She respected men who stood their ground — but it had to be firm ground.
I had very few differences with her, which may have led me to take our relationship for granted.
In my years as Party Chairman, we often spoke on the same platform but never exchanged texts of our speeches. We simply assumed that they would never clash, and they never did.
Political life being what it is, envious folk made mischief, telling her that as Party Chairman, I was creating my own power base to rival her.
In fact, I had promised my wife in 1985 that I would leave the government after the 1987 election. Perhaps that left me ‘demob happy’ and neglectful of staying close to the PM. Even so, when I told her on election day that I would not remain in government, she was shocked and tried to change my mind.
Chancellor Nigel Lawson’s resignation in October 1989 was a terrible blow to Margaret Thatcher. Only a few years earlier she had told me: ‘As long as Nigel, you and I stick together, we can do anything.’
Alas, I had been unstuck by the IRA, and when Nigel came unglued she had no friend or political soulmate left. I have often reproached myself for not accepting her invitation at that time to rejoin the Cabinet. Could I have saved her from being brought down by the treachery of wet Left weaklings in 1990
I do not know, nor can anyone say. But as I look back on her last days in office, I often regret not being at her side, whatever the outcome.
To have more time for Denis was the only compensation. When he died in 2003, her world began to close in. The bright days became fewer and the dark more frequent until that great spirit simply faded away.
Not since Queen Elizabeth I — who claimed to ‘have the body of a weak and feeble woman but the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England, too’ — did we see a woman (nor many men) of such courage, wiles and intelligence. We will not know another for many years to come.