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Nigel Fletcher: Thatcher and Cameron – In Government's Waiting Room

Nigel Fletcher is an adviser in the Conservative Research Department and a Councillor in the London Borough of Greenwich.  This article is adapted from his ongoing research for a doctoral thesis on the role of the Opposition in Britain.

The Leader of the Opposition and the Conservative Shadow Cabinet sat around the table in their meeting room, posed for a group photograph.  With two years to go before a General Election, they faced a former Labour Chancellor who had taken over as Prime Minister from a younger and more charismatic predecessor.  After the cancellation of an expected General Election, Labour was set for eventual defeat at the hands of a resurgent Conservative Party and its dynamic leader.

Thatchercameron That Leader was Margaret Thatcher, and the Prime Minister, James Callaghan.  It was 1977, but the parallels with David Cameron and Gordon Brown today are striking.  So on Monday of this week, thirty years on, I watched as Lady Thatcher sat with David Cameron in the Shadow Cabinet Room, where she planned her Government, and where he now plans his. 

The event was the launch of an exhibition I have put together in conjunction with the Parliamentary Archives, entitled ‘Government’s Waiting Room.’  It marks the contribution the Shadow Cabinet’s premises have made to recent Parliamentary history, and is drawn from my wider research for a doctoral thesis on the role of the Opposition. If the Shadow Cabinet is a Government-in-waiting, my argument runs, its offices are the most significant waiting-rooms in Britain.  They matter because, as Winston Churchill said in reference to the Palace of Westminster, ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.’  Well, that’s my excuse – in truth, having worked in and around the Shadow Cabinet block over the years, its history intrigued me.

That curiosity led me, after several months of research, to organise the reception in the Shadow Cabinet Room on Monday.  With the exception of John Major (who was absent abroad) we were joined by all the other Conservative Leaders to have used the room since: William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard, and of course David Cameron, who escorted Lady Thatcher to the event after their private talks in his office. Also in attendance were a number of surviving members of the 1970s Shadow Cabinet –Teddy Taylor, Norman Fowler and Tom King. 

It was a very special evening, with many memories shared.  Lady Thatcher herself was on top form, and no-one who heard her take control of the photocall at the Shadow Cabinet table can doubt she still has a commanding presence.  It was that same determination which secured her the use of the current Shadow Cabinet Room in 1976 and ensured that in the thirty-one years since, it has been at the heart of politics at Westminster as the designated home of the Opposition. 

When Mrs Thatcher took over as Leader of the Opposition in 1975 she was far from impressed by the facilities she found.  The Leader’s Room doubled as the Shadow Cabinet meeting room, and she recalls in her memoirs that there ‘was not enough space, and as summer approached it all became very hot and airless.’  The inadequacy of the facilities was underlined by the fact her secretaries had to sit on the floor in the main room to sort the huge pile of correspondence she received. 

She did, however, attempt to make her surroundings more bearable, as a journalist who interviewed her there in May 1975 reported:

"Margaret Thatcher has persuaded the Department of the Environment to embellish the Leader of the Opposition’s room with a couple of cloth-covered settees and an armchair, a pink-shaded brass lamp and a chromium and glass table.  There should be some impressionist prints coming.  The plates on the mantel-piece are her own.  Only half the bulbs in the chandelier light up, which has her snapping switches in mild exasperation."

Her office routine made the inadequacies of her office more troublesome.  In the same interview she revealed that she was normally in her office by 9.30am and stayed at least until the House of Commons rose for the night, frequently much later:

‘By the time I’ve been writing a speech at three o’clock in the morning, my hair is looking dishevelled.  I haven’t even got a mirror in this room, I must get one.  You look in the glass of a bookcase or something, but you make up before you go out in the morning, you put on something reasonably tidy and you hope it remains reasonably tidy.’

The job of solving the problem of lack of space fell to Mrs Thatcher’s head of office and close confidante, Airey Neave MP, who discussed it with the Government.   When the request was reported to him, Prime Minister Harold Wilson agreed that ‘parliamentary accommodation is inadequate but that the solution for that must be found within the parliamentary setting.’ 

Financial pressures meant that little progress was made at first, but the following year, with new Prime Minister James Callaghan in Downing Street, Airey Neave approached the new Leader of the House, Michael Foot, to ask if there was any possibility of the Opposition taking over some of the accommodation in the official Serjeant at Arms’ residence, off Speaker’s Court.  The Serjeant was retiring, and his successor had made it known that he was content to remain in his existing flat as long as provision were made for his Deputy.  After checking with the Department of the Environment and Number 10, Michael Foot wrote to Airey Neave to tell him ‘we are content for the Opposition to move during the Recess into that part of the Serjeant’s former residence that is not being converted for the use of the Deputy Serjeant… I am glad to note that you do not want the move to cost a great deal, and I hope that agreement can soon be reached on any expenditure that may be necessary.’

Neave had indeed been at pains to stress the lack of spending desired, noting that although the decorations were ‘mostly sub-standard and are due to be replaced under normal maintenance’ it would ‘be wrong in our view to spend money on them at the present time.  A thorough cleaning throughout, together with the rearrangement of the furniture, is all that we feel would now be justified.’   He requested extra telephones, annunciators (Parliamentary information screens) and a division bell, but added ‘all of this would have been needed to whatever House purposes the rooms were allocated.’  The careful display of frugality, and its commitment to paper, demonstrates the sensitivity of a politician at a time of national restraint, as well as Mrs Thatcher’s own instincts on good housekeeping.

When the order to begin work filtered down to the Department of the Environment, an official there noted the instruction for a minimal amount of work to be carried out, but pointed out that the new Shadow Cabinet room ‘can be very cold in winter’, and asked if anything needed to be done about this, or whether ‘this been accepted as well.’  She also added sceptically ‘I am personally very doubtful that Mrs Thatcher will stand the present very heavy ‘dining room’ decoration for long.’

The move to the new premises is recorded with a short sentence on the Shadow Cabinet agenda of 13th October 1976, the first meeting back after the Parliamentary recess.   Below the list of items such as ‘British Transport Locks (Felixstowe) Bill’ is the note ‘Please note that Mrs Thatcher’s new office is where the Serjeant at Arms’ office used to be, [past] the Prime Minister’s office.’ Mrs Thatcher chaired the meeting from a seat in the middle of the long side of the table, facing the window.  This configuration mirrored that of the Cabinet Room in Number 10 Downing Street, no doubt intentionally, whilst a portrait of Sir Winston Churchill gazed down from the wall at the weekly meetings.

From this room, and her office across the corridor, Mrs Thatcher held court for the duration of her period as Leader of the Opposition.  She both worked and entertained there during the week when the House was sitting, receiving visitors including Ronald Reagan, who came to see her there whilst still Governor of California in November 1978.  She certainly made herself at home, as one of her staff recalled.  Matthew Parris, who worked in her correspondence unit, recalls an occasion just before a Shadow Cabinet meeting when he walked into the Shadow Cabinet Room to find the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition standing on a wobbling chair in stockinged feet, running her finger along the top of an oil painting.  ‘It’s the way a woman knows whether a room’s been cleaned properly’, she told him.

In the years that followed Mrs Thatcher’s move to Downing Street, the Shadow Cabinet Room continued to see its share of political drama and farce.  Under Neil Kinnock, Welsh trade union banners adorned the walls, whilst there were reports that Sue Nye, his diary secretary (who now controls access to Prime Minister Gordon Brown) used to perform acrobatic somersaults as her party piece after receptions there.

Just before the 1992 General Election, the House authorities discussed with the Opposition the replacement of the curtains, and reportedly asked Kinnock’s office to avoid the existing colour, red, to avoid any embarrassment if the Conservatives moved in after polling day. In the end, they decided on gold, which they remain to this day.  When Kinnock lost the election, he chose this room for his valedictory press statement, flanked by his wife and closest personal staff, with the South Wales area NUM banner and a display of red roses behind him.

John Smith signalled a break with his predecessor by replacing the banner on the wall with a painting showing ‘a rainswept Palace of Westminster across a grey, storm-tossed Thames’ for the duration of his leadership.  After Smith’s death, Tony Blair made frequent use of the room, and placed a bronze figure of Clement Attlee on the mantelpiece, along with a stack of books including the New Testament.  The People newspaper reported that in September 1996 Blair chose the ‘deserted Shadow Cabinet room… where New Labour was born’ to prepare his final party conference speech before the General Election.  The paper described a romantic vision of the Prime Minister-in-waiting ‘alone with his thoughts’, ‘out of the spotlight’ with ‘the only sound the scratching of Tony’s pen.’  And, presumably, the sound of the camera shutter and flash of the photographer sent along to record the occasion.

When the Conservatives returned to Opposition, the room saw plenty of dramatic scenes.  William Hague, who placed a portrait of his hero William Pitt on the wall, arrived at a Shadow Cabinet meeting one evening in 1998 to announce to colleagues he had just fired Lord Cranbourne as Conservative Leader in the Lords for his secret deal with Labour on Lords reform.   Five years later, in October 2003, Iain Duncan Smith marched in to tell his senior colleagues that despite mounting criticism he would not resign.  His press aide Nick Wood recorded that ‘his colleagues banged the table, but they made a hollow sound.’  Less than a week later, MPs triggered the vote of no confidence which ended his leadership.

Michael Howard’s Chief of Staff Stephen Sherbourne, like Airey Neave before him, identified the problem of lack of office space, but found a solution with admirable speed.  Instead of moving into the Shadow Cabinet block, Howard and his team instead took over offices in the Norman Shaw South Parliamentary outbuilding, which had recently reopened after a refurbishment.   The old Shadow Cabinet Room was still used for meetings, and it was here that Michael Howard unveiled his new, slimmed-down Shadow Cabinet to the press.  He reduced its size to just 12 people, a fact that meant meetings could also be held in his office if necessary.  The innovative idea was not deemed a success, however, and in a reshuffle the following year the Shadow Cabinet grew again to a size that more closely matched both the number in the Labour cabinet and the number of seats around the Shadow Cabinet table.

More recently, David Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet has risked becoming too large to fit comfortably around the table.  Their first meeting following the last reshuffle in July was therefore held in the Attlee Room in Portcullis House, where there was room for them to gather in comfort and pose for group photographs.  Regular meetings have now switched back to the more traditional setting of the Shadow Cabinet Room, where the more limited space means that Cameron leads a very close-knit team in every sense.

As they rub elbows every week, today’s Shadow Cabinet can draw inspiration from the fact that they are following in the tradition of their predecessors, who sat around the same table thirty years ago. The decisions taken then launched the Thatcher revolution and formed the basis for eighteen years of Conservative government.  Perhaps it is as well that the current incumbents are not making themselves too comfortable.


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