I had the extreme privilege and honour to serve Margaret Thatcher as her political agent between 1987-1992.
These are a few of the anecdotes which I’ve called to mind from those days.
Now that I’ve almost been cured of boring people with these old stories, I thought I should record them somewhere before I start forgetting them.
There are many, many more – I’ll see what I can dredge up from the memory banks. I am already finding that I forget who said what where and when!
Encouraging young people
My first encounter with Mrs T was when I was a Young Conservative and I sent her (just after she had become party leader in 1975) a copy of a pamphlet I’d co-written called “The Right Direction.”
She sent back almost immediately a hand written note with one or two pointers for improvement, but otherwise a praise-filled note and a suggestion to follow up with Sir Keith Joseph her policy guru and mentor, which I did.
Twelve years later when she interviewed me (and my then wife) to be her agent, I reminded her of her letter. She smiled and said “We must always encourage young people and people with ideas.” Then added “whether we agree with them or not.”
Watch how they treat “the staff.”
I was once sitting next to Mrs T at a dinner attended by a number of senior politicians, when she asked me if I knew how to test “mettle” in people. I asked her how she did it, and she said “watch how they treat the serving staff. Tells you “what sort of person they are.”
Once at a large fund-raising event we had to clear tables after dinner to rearrange the room before Mrs T could speak. As this was being done, I noticed glasses flying from one table and a couple smashed on the floor.
A waitress rushed over to pick up the pieces. Down on hands and knees she was grumbling under her breath (quite loudly) about “these bloody people” changing things.
Somebody knelt beside her and started picking up the pieces of glass too and said to the waitress “they are a bloody nuisance aren’t they, dear.” The waitress didn’t look up. Just agreed, mumbling and grumbling.
Then as she got up she realised the person who had knelt to agree with her was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Mrs T smiled, said “thank you for working so hard tonight” to the waitress and swept on to deliver her speech.
Talking to people
On Mrs T’s twice monthly (usually government and world events permitting) visits to her constituency we used to organise five or six events for each day.
I always tried to get as much time in for her to speak, unchaperoned by officials, to “ordinary” people.
Early on in my role organising these events I recall going to a Tesco supermarket with her where she had a coffee with the ladies working in the store. They chatted openly about all sorts.
After her return to Number 10 that night, nearly always after 11pm, I had a phone call from a very superior sounding civil servant with a plumby Oxbridge accent. He demanded to know “who the hell (I’d) been letting her meet?”
This was apparently because she’d arrived back, got a couple of senior people out of their beds at home at started haranguing them about some of the things she’d heard from the Tesco ladies.
Job done, I thought!
This is your school not mine
I took Mrs T to perform a foundation stone laying for new primary school buildings. The organisers had arranged for VIPs like the Mayor, councillors, officials and so on to be positioned near to where she would press the lever to lower the stone. The staff, parents and pupils were kept back behind a tape.
When we arrived Mrs T took one look at the layout and asked me who had arranged it.
“Not me!” I managed to get in before she marched off across a muddy field in her 6 inch high heals ignoring the “duck boards” put down for her.
She gathered the children and asked them to join her. Then ignoring the VIPs she ask the children to put their hands together and help her to press the lever saying “This is your school, not mine. You should lay this stone and all remember the day you did.”
Many years later I was accosted in the street one day by a teenager who asked me if I had worked for Mrs T.
She said she had been one of those children and that she had never forgotten what she had said. She was then at university studying to become a teacher herself.
Always be prepared
Taking Mrs T around another school one day I looked in horror as the teacher in one class suggested she watch the children do some finger painting. Knowing Mrs T I knew that this would mean she was about to join in.
She did and emerged with paint covered fingers. Before I could think what to do she whipped out a packet of “wet ones” from her famous handbag.
“Always be prepared Mike” she said, adding “weren’t you a Scout?” I had been as it happens but I hadn’t thought of that.
Chatting with her Director of Presentation Harvey Thomas afterwards I realised that he had slipped the packet into her bag. Harvey told me then and always – “Only three things you need to do – prepare, prepare and prepare.”
What is Page Two
Probably the best lesson I received during this time was about briefing people. I used to prepare briefing notes for Mrs T – who you are meeting, why you are meeting them, when you last met them if you did, what they said, what they are interested in etc etc.
This extended to speaking notes that were just bullet points when she needed to speak in public.
One day she was opening a new government training scheme for apprentices and she said a few words at the end which weren’t what I had briefed at all. It all seem to go OK and nobody noticed, but it wasn’t quite right.
On our way to the next event she suddenly turned on me with those laser beam like eyes which could look into your soul, and demanded to know why she had not been briefed properly.
I insisted (as I noticed everybody else around disappearing and taking cover) that the notes were in her brief.
She looked at it, then looked at me and demanded to know where. I said they were on page 2. She boomed back – “What is Page 2? If you want me to say it – put it on Page 1” and marched on.
It was a good lesson and one I’ve always remembered in subsequent work (although not in my blogging) – that less is nearly always more.
When my daughter was born
Ahead of my second daughters’ birth Mrs T asked me when she was expected. i told her and she said – be sure to call me.
I agreed to but thought nothing more of it until my daughter had been born and after I had called parents from the hospital I thought maybe Mrs T had been serious, although I had assumed she was just being polite, so although it was by then the early hours of the morning I called Number 10.
One of the “Garden Girls” (as the secretaries who worked in Number 10’s Garden Room were then, and still are called, answered and before I could say anything much she asked me if it was a boy or a girl, which rather threw me.
Then I explained the PM had asked me to call but thought I’d leave a message to which the Garden Girl said “oh no, the PM has been waiting up for the news – I’ll put you through.”
Next day a basket of “nice smelly things” arrived for my wife. The note from Mrs T read “Everybody will send something for the baby, this is for you.”
Why we do things
At the end of each day’s visits and events and after her constituency advice surgery we used to usually finish of the day with a drink and a chat about things. She would then drive off back to Number 10 or Chequers and as the car swept out I could always see her start to open her Red Boxes in the car to dive into more paperwork.
One evening during one of those chats I shared some opinion research (I’m not a huge believer in opinion research but I was younger then) which suggested that if the government did not ditch or change a particularly controversial piece of law making, we might well lose some seats in the next election which were crucial to our success in London.
She closed down the conversation responding to me with “Mike you don’t understand do you? We do not change things so we can win elections. We have to win elections so we can change things. We are here to change things.”
Some of us …
Ahead of party conference one year, Mrs T asked me for some input to her annual speech to my colleagues in the National Society of Conservative and Unionist Agents.
Among other things I suggested that she might get a “laugh line” if she mentioned that Agents often call their MPs “The Legal Necessity.”
Agents use this expression in a joking way to say that campaigns don’t depend on the candidate, but the party (whatever the British Constitution might say).
Legally the only two entities recognised during a campaign in Election Law are the Candidate and the Agent. So we say the candidate is just “a legal necessity because without one we couldn’t technically fight the campaign, but otherwise they just get in the way.”
I suggested my colleagues would be amused by this if she acknowledged it in a self-deprecating way.
On the night in The Spanish Room at Blackpool, she used the line, but embellished it.
She told her audience. “My agent tells me you think that candidates are simply a legal necessity.” She paused, they laughed. Then she added “But I have to tell you that some of us are a lot more necessary than others.” It brought the house down!
And the vegetables?
When I was head of comms for McDonald’s UK in my later work incarnation and Mrs T’s former press secretary, the redoubtable Sir Bernard Ingham was a McDonald’s Non- Executive Director, I was present at an international corporate event where he was the keynote speaker and he inserted the famous “Spitting Image” “Vegetables” sketch into his speech.
You know the one. Mrs T goes to restaurant with her Cabinet.
She’s asked what she’ll have to eat.
She says “the beef” and the server asks “and the vegetables?”
Mrs T says – “they’ll have beef too.”
Afterwards I said to Sir Bernard that I loved that sketch and could just imagine it being true. He looked at me for a moment, then asked “wasn’t it?”
Christmas was always a busy time of year working for Mrs T. She used to receive any number of kind gifts, flowers, cakes, puddings, turkeys. The list went on.
For a week either side of Christmas I (and others) used to redistribute the gifts to those who needed them more.
They were always donated anonymously. I don’t think anybody knew that they had eaten the PM’s turkey for Christmas!
Do what you are told
I took Mrs T to a charity event at Easter once and some kind retailer who presumably wanted a name check (I think it might have been the old Woolworth’s) gave Mrs T a giant chocolate Easter Egg.
When we got back to the office she asked me if I’d like it for my “children.”
I explained that only had one child, my three-year old daughter who she’d met a couple of times.
“Yes yes, you’re children.” she repeated.
Harvey Thomas, who was also my neighbour as well as her Director of Presentation, tried to explain as well, but to no avail. The next day when I went home my then wife announced that she was pregnant.
Mrs T liked to be right.
On her constituency visits, there was a lot of security as you can imagine. In fact I’d say I spent more time when her agent dealing with Special Branch over such matters than anything else.
Every visit on a day in the constituency had been planned months ahead. For every visit that took place there were at least one, usually two “dummy” ones which did not. That meant ten or so in planning for each day.
On those days I would lead the PM’s car and her police pursuit cars in my little car as a kind of navigator. The routes, again with two or three alternatives, were planned and rehearsed in detail.
However when I was appointed as her agent I took over from my predecessor Andrew Thomson at a month’s notice so I inherited the first few visit days which he had already planned. Consequently I had not been on the many “recce” visits ahead of hers.
Ahead of the day of the first visit I was to lead on (which was to be Andrew’s last day in the job) he took me around the route. It was all strange to me as I didn’t know the area.
On the day, for the last visit of the day we were due to attend an event in the back room of a pub called The Torringdon in North Finchley.
On the way there I was driving on my own without Andrew who had left us after the lunch event, with an armoured plated Daimler following containing the PM and her pursuit car behind.
It was dark. I got lost.
We went on a rather long detour to get back to where we should have been.
The cars behind kept following me going around the back streets. When we arrived I must have looked as white as a sheet.
Not the best first day on the job. But to my relief one of Mrs T’s “Boys” (Close Protection Special Branch Officers) took me aside and said “Don’t worry son, nobody said anything we just kept following. She was reading papers.”
Then as we walked into the room for the event Mrs T turned to me and just said “Interesting route. Getting to know the patch? Good.” And marched on.
So am I dear
We used to visit quite a few old peoples’ homes. All MPs do.
On one visit I recall Mrs T sitting down with a group of elderly ladies and one of the explaining to her that although she was one of the younger residents, “at (her) age, it’s best to take it easy.”
Mrs T asked her how old she was and she replied “65.” (I thought she looked older, I’m not sure she knew how old she was).
“Oh really,” Mrs T replied. “So am I dear!” Then she rushed off to run the country.
Designed by men!
One of my favourite Mrs Thatcher anecdotes was from her second visit to the UK offices of the company I ended up working for, McDonald’s.
I had taken her to the McDonald’s HQ which was located in her north London constituency, to declare open the last two-thirds of the building added.
On the visit she toured the new building, part of which was to see some different kitchen and restaurant designs which were mocked up in a studio.
As we looked at one design she noticed that there was a gap between the top of the kitchen units and the ceiling.
She turned to McDonald’s Construction VP and asked “So who do you expect to clean that? A woman I suppose?” and walked off tut-tutting about “Things designed by men!”
I can’t find a photo from that day, but here’s one at McDonald’s on an earlier visit. She had just made a Big Mac and gave it to the nearest person to her to eat who happened to be Clarence Mitchell, then a young local reporter later a BBC star, and a former colleague of mine at Burson-Marsteller. This was the day before the 1983 general election was called.
Merry Christmas, sir.
When I worked for Mrs T, my wife and I had the immense privilege to join a small group of friends and family invited for her Christmas Eve party at Chequers every year. It was a lovely, informal, joy-filled occasion loaded with lots of Christmas messages from Mrs T on her favourite subject of “duty.”
I used to particularly enjoy watching Mrs T serve the drinks and tell everyone what they were having. One year she greeted us on the steps push a champagne flute into my wife’s hand and said “and Mike will be drinking orange juice.” Gee thanks.
On our first visit there we caused a bit of a stir.
We had been Christmas shopping during the day and had my old car loaded up with presents which we would be taking down to my wife’s parents the next morning.
Unfortunately navigating a horrendous one-way system the car died. It was long past its “best by date” it had to be said.
My then wife’s family were (are) car dealers, so for want of any other ideas on Christmas Eve we managed to get back to their showroom in Wandsworth and “borrowed” a car to get us down to Chequers.
Unfortunately I had completely forgotten that the security services had the details of the old not the new car. As we drove into the long lane that leads up to the great house, a couple of balaclava wearing chaps wielding machine guns flew out of the trees and required us to stop.
Unconvinced by my little tale and a tad suspicious of a car full of Christmas presents, they made us take them all out and then suggested we unwrap them.
As my wife looked like she might be about to take on the best of the best, one touched his ear piece and said it’s OK ***** (one of Mrs T’s special branch protection officers – the team she always called “The Boys”) says “tell him we’re only joking – Merry Christmas!”
As a post script, The Boys used to stay in a small gatehouse lodge at Chequers over Christmas, and while they were on duty it was a regular occurrence for Mrs T to pop down with soup or hot drinks she had made for them.
I always liked those little touches – tells you something about a person.
Respect your enemy
This memory is about her not of her. Eight years after she left parliament and I was no longer her agent in 2000, I was working with McDonald’s when I was invited by the global PR agency Porter-Novelli, one of my team of agencies at the time, to speak at a conference for their “partners” in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The venue for the conference was a huge hotel situated close to the site of the Argentinian memorial to the dead of what they call the Malvinas War, and what Brits call The Falklands War of 1982.
A war in which Margaret Thatcher famously led our country to victory. Of course the view of history in Argentina is somewhat different.
The year of my speech turned out to be when the Argentinians first commemorated Malvinas Day as an annual event to remember their war dead.
I was told I would be sharing the platform with an Argentinian government minister.
When the chairman read out my biographical details as my introduction, including that I had worked for Mrs T, I feared this was not going to go well.
As I rose to speak the minister took my arm and whispered as an aside – “I thought she was very good. A great leader.”
Just goes to show that enemies past or present can always respect each other.
Kicking the shoes off
Mrs T was opening the first David Lloyd leisure centre. On one of the ‘advance recce” visits I had been told by somebody from No10 that she would watch the children at the centre who would be demonstrating their tennis training, but “only watch.”
On the day I suggested it would be better if she could at least get onto the court to speak to the children, not just watch from afar.
I asked her if she could hit a tennis ball, she said of course she could. So asked if she’d like to hit a ball with the children.
To the horror of No10 minders and delight of the press corp she kicked off her high heels, went on to the court in her stocking feet and started a knock about with the children.
It stole ever front page and even ended up as a Private Eye cover the week when she was challenged for the party leadership, in sadder times for her supporters with the caption “nobody is going to bowl me out!” – a reference to Sir Geoffrey Howe’s infamous cricketing remark when he put the knife in.
Cricket? Tennis? She was still wearing a business suit – and as always meant business!