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26 February 2009

Mrs T’s rogues’ gallery

Sholto Byrnes recalls the allies and hangers-on who prospered under Thatcher

By Sholto Byrnes

Alfred Sherman

A former Communist, expelled for “Titoist deviationism”, a Balkans expert, journalist and polemicist, Alfred Sherman was arguably the main provider of the intellectual basis of Thatcherism. He co-founded the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) with Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher in 1974 and, as its director, in effect sidelined the official Conservative Research Department. Senior Tories got used to being overruled with the words “but Alfred says . . .” An extremist – he had bracing views on immigration and later advised the Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic – and a difficult, prickly man, he left the CPS in 1984, complaining that his critics had represented him as “an amalgam of Père Joseph, Svengali and the Elders of Zion”. Nonetheless, Thatcher gave him a knighthood and said of him: “We could never have defeated socialism if it hadn’t been for Sir Alfred.”

Alan Walters

Described by his boss as “radical, fearless” and “the finest of friends”, Professor Sir Alan Walters was twice personal economics adviser to Thatcher, on the first occasion helping spoon out the harsh medicine of the 1981 Budget (which raised taxes in the midst of recession), and on the second playing a part in the row that helped force her from office. A stern monetarist, Walters disagreed with the Exchange Rate Mechanism, calling it “half-baked”, but the chancellor, Nigel Lawson, supported it. Asked by Neil Kinnock if she would get rid of Walters, Thatcher replied: “Advisers advise, ministers decide.” It wasn’t enough for Lawson, who resigned within hours. Unbending, outspoken and arrogant (his coffee mug bore the words “Quiet – genius at work”), Walters described a later chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, as being without “spine, knowledge and drive”. Some thought he had aimed to provoke Lawson’s resignation; Walters himself ended up standing for Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party.

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Charles Powell

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If New Labour was guilty, as is often charged, of politicising the civil service, the precedent was set by Charles Powell. Technically a junior private secretary to the prime minister, his crucial behind-the-scenes role during the Westland affair in 1986 emphasised how much more important this “foreign affairs adviser” truly was: in fact, he and Bernard Ingham (Diary, page 9) virtually ran No 10 between them, to the irritation of many cabinet ministers. Some suggested that Powell, a man of charm and intelligence, was the son she had never had. Certainly he remained close to her, even when working for her successor (his brother Jonathan occupied a similar role in the Blair government). When Thatcher left office and there was a plumbing problem in her new home, it was to Powell she turned. He advised using a book called the Yellow Pages. When she called back she was still in shock at the fees charged.

Mark Thatcher

The “boy Mark” as in his late twenties when Downing Street became the family home, and whereas his father, Denis, did his best to keep out of the limelight, the son revelled in it despite the embarrassment he caused. In 1982 he made world headlines when he managed to get lost during the Paris-Dakar motor rally, causing his mother to cry openly during the six days he was missing. She doted on “Thickie Mark”, as he was known at Harrow, even when his business interests caused her trouble. In 1984, questions were asked in the House about his role as a fixer for British companies in the Middle East, and he is said to have profited from the £20bn al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Before the 1987 election Mark asked Bernard Ingham how he could best help out in the campaign. According to Alan Clark, the response was: “Leave the country.”

Keith Joseph

The “Mad Monk”, a cabinet minister under Ted Heath, was going to be the right’s challenger for the party leadership in 1975 until he made an unfortunate reference to “human stock” in a speech that, to many, smacked of eugenics. Probably to his relief, his protégée Margaret Thatcher then stood and won instead. As her head of policy, Joseph, a baronet and fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, formulated what became known as Thatcherism. “It was only in 1974 that I was converted to Conservatism,” he wrote, referring to the intellectual crisis that led him to reject the Butskellite consensus and embrace monetarism and the free market. “I had thought that I was a Conservative, but now I see I was not really one at all.” A rather other-worldly figure, dry, doleful and unspinnable, Joseph was not a great success in government and left in 1986. But as Thatcher said to him on his resignation: “You more than anyone else . . . were the architect who shaped the policies.”

Norman Tebbit

The “Chingford Skinhead” was, in the words of Michael Foot, Thatcher’s “semi-house-trained polecat”, licensed to appeal in the crudest terms to the authoritarian, nationalistic, lower-middle and working-class voters who were the core Thatcher Conservatives. The inventor of the “cricket test”, and for ever associated with the slogan “On yer bike”, Tebbit joined the cabinet in 1981 in the reshuffle that sidelined the “wets”, and later became party chairman. He returned to the back benches after the 1987 general election victory to spend more time caring for his wife, Margaret, who had been seriously injured in the 1984 Brighton bombings. Despite their occasional differences – Tebbit was seen as a potential successor, and he knew it – Thatcher “bitterly regretted” losing so pugnacious and like-minded a colleague. Old-style patrician Tories were less impressed. Harold Macmillan once said of him: “Heard a chap on the radio this morning talking with a cockney accent. They tell me he is one of Her Majesty’s ministers.”

Woodrow Wyatt

Cigar-chomping Lord Wyatt of Weeford, the News of the World’s “Voice of Reason”, was a former Labour MP who became an admirer and close friend of Thatcher’s during the 1970s. Flamboyant, somewhat ridiculous – “his whole lifestyle was of an upper-class twit, although he wasn’t one to begin with,” said Bill Rodgers’s wife, Silvia – he nevertheless had real influence. Peers, politicians and captains of industry were regulars at his St John’s Wood salon, and he played an important role in advising Thatcher to allow Rupert Murdoch to buy the Times newspaper titles without reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which could well have blocked the sale. Wyatt claimed in his posthumously published diaries that he spoke to her at length every Sunday morning, and that his friend the Queen Mother was one of Thatcher’s most devoted supporters; the Tory historian Lord Blake was one of many who considered him “a notorious liar”.

Gordon Reece

By her side from her first broadcasts as education secretary, Reece was a television producer who fitted the stereotype of the flashy adman, dressing well and drinking nothing but champagne. His career had been in programmes such as On the Braden Beat and Emergency Ward Ten, and he knew nothing about politics. But he it was who shaped her image in every way. He had her filmed doing the washing-up in a pinny during the 1975 Tory leadership election, advised on her hair and clothes, trained her to lower the pitch of her voice, and selected the Saatchi brothers to handle the party’s account in the run-up to the 1979 election, which resulted in the “Labour isn’t working” campaign. “If we lose the election,” Thatcher joked to him, “I may be sacked, but you will be shot.” He left Central Office in 1980 but continued to advise “the Leaderene”, as Norman St John-Stevas called her. He returned to help with the next two elections and was one of the favoured few invited to Chequers every Christmas.

Cecil Parkinson

Smoothie-chops Cecil was, according to Mrs T’s biographer Hugo Young, “the very first of her protégés . . . socially and politically . . . a kind of fulfilment of the Thatcher ideal”. Plucked from lower office to be party chairman in 1981, Parkinson attracted envy when he became a leading member of the Falklands War cabinet and cemented his place at Thatcher’s side.

Self-made, the son of a railwayman, he personified what the snobbish, waspish Tory Julian Critchley called the “garagiste” tendency of upwardly mobile younger MPs. His charm led to his downfall – on the cusp of being offered the Foreign Office, he had to resign after it came to light that he had fathered a child by his secretary. He later returned to the cabinet, but never regained quite the same influence.

Shirley Porter

The Tesco heiress was considered the Margaret Thatcher of local government as leader of Westminster City Council from 1983-91, although even her fellow grocer’s daughter in No 10 might have hesitated to take one of Porter’s most notorious decisions – selling off cemeteries for 15p. Called “divisive, pushy and egotistical” by a former Tesco board member, Porter made attempts to ensure Westminster stayed blue that resulted in the “homes for votes” scandal, making her name a byword for corruption. She was accused of gerrymandering after council housing in marginal wards was sold to owner-occupiers deemed more likely to vote Tory. She also forced homeless families to live in tower blocks known to be contaminated with asbestos. After fleeing to Israel, where she was immune from charges, she settled a judgment debt in 2004 by paying £12m and was stripped of the title Dame of the British Empire.

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