A small cloud hangs over the alternate week-ends when an article has to be written for the Andover Advertiser. It has just been lifted by the news that the Thatcher Foundation is placing on the internet memoranda from the early years of her first administration, and indeed of the years in opposition that preceded it. These are not official documents, but her private notes and memorabilia held by Churchill College in Cambridge.
As a vicar looks for inspiration for his sermon at the lessons to be read, so I surfed for inspiration for my article the virtual pages of margaretthatcher.org.
It was not immediately obvious that I would feature in any of them, as I flew well below her radar at that time, but the search engine duly obliged. From 1976 until the 1979 General Election, I had sat on a policy group chaired by Nicholas Ridley. I had forgotten about this, but now I remember him chain-smoking his way through the meetings as we drew up policies for privatising the nationalised industries. Our deliberations had found their way to the Leader. She had adorned the margins of the minutes with her pen and they are now there for all to see.
Over ten years later, when Nicholas Ridley became Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, our words became deeds. And, twenty years after we first met, I played a modest role by privatising the railways. It was more difficult than we had made it appear back in 1976.
Also in Churchill College, we were told, was the Handbag.
I remember the handbag. Before Prime Minister’s Questions were shifted in 1997 to a Wednesday for half an hour, they were at 3.15 on Tuesdays and Thursdays for a quarter of an hour. Health Questions were on a Tuesday and, as a junior Health Minister persecuting the tobacco companies, I answered question with my colleagues from 2.35 to 3.15. Speaking at the despatch box in the Chamber, I recall being distracted by a handbag being placed on the table just to my left. This meant that the boss had arrived.
What was in the handbag? It was rumoured that there was a list of those who had voted for proportional representation in the 1970’s, and that there was a map showing Germany’s 1937 borders which she took it out in meetings to illustrate the “German problem”
Back to the Chamber. The arrival of the handbag was a signal to clean up ones jokes, show total command of ones brief and display the qualities that would earn promotion from Parliamentary Under Secretary of State to Minister of State and a bigger car. After eight years of listening to me, the handbag decided to return me to the backbenches.