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Robin Cook was not leadership material


Never meeting Margaret Thatcher while she was Prime Minister
Anthony Howard Writer
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So as I say, I never saw her in all the time she was Prime Minister, I never saw her. She would… I mean, I saw her in the House of Commons, but I never had any private interview or anything. She was very vindictive, as a matter of fact. For example, no reason why she should have asked me, but Donald Trelford, who was editor of The Observer at time, we’d been rather critical of Mark Thatcher and his goings-on with Cementation and contracts and this kind of thing, and all the time that I was at The Observer as number two to Donald, not one single invitation to Number 10 came to the editor of The Observer. That was because we were considered to have behaved very badly over the Mark Thatcher business, we were absolutely right came out [unclear], but she was vindictive in that way. And I really had no dealings with her at all until… Oh, I leave one thing out. I did have dealings with her at a press conference.

1979, Conservative Central Office. For some reason, the Conservatives had left open the possibility in their election manifesto, of restoring capital punishment. They hadn’t said they would do it, but they said there’d be a free vote on the restoration of capital punishment. And so I took it upon myself at this press conference to ask a question. She was then leader of the opposition, to say, 'Mrs Thatcher, this reference to capital punishment in that manifesto, is that to give your own self the freedom to vote in favour of hanging? Is that what lay behind it?' 'Mr Howard, only you would ask a question like that. Next'.

So I didn’t do myself any good with that, either. But she then, very sweetly, as a matter of fact, when I was doing a radio series about prominent politicians, for Radio 4, in I think it must have been 1999 or something like that, or perhaps… anyway, she’d long since… she’d become a back number and she was now Lady Thatcher in the House of Lords, I think I wrote to her and said, look, Keith Joseph is one of the people I’ve chosen, and could I come and talk to you about Keith Joseph? And she immediately wrote back and said, of course, I’d be delighted to talk about Keith. And she did have a tremendous feeling of the debt of obligation she owed Joseph. Hadn’t been helped by the fact that, although Joseph joined her cabinet, he was not a great success, and eventually left, as, I think Secretary of State for Industry, where he’d really been rather a failure. Or did he…? No, I think he left as Minister of Education. He was Industry, he moved from Industry to Education, I think. But he hadn’t been a success. He was a great genuine intellectual, he used to agonise...'Oh God, oh dear...' And she, I think, felt guilty about him, because she thought the leadership had been his inheritance.

Anyway, she saw me that day in that grand, sort of, residence she had… not residence, sort of Embassy place, which was her office in Chesham Place. And she was very nice and very sweet and there was a young man there. But I did notice that her mind wasn’t what it was, and I’m afraid that, even though it’s long before she was declared to be, sort of, no longer going to make speeches or stuff, it was perfectly clear that she wasn’t quite right. That she’d lose the thread in what she was saying, this kind of thing. But as I say, she couldn’t have been more charming, and it was very good of her to do it for me. And I think she did it for Keith, not for me. Keith was already dead by then. But I thank her for that and am grateful for that. That really was the last contact I had with her, and, as I say, my contacts with her were pretty intermittent down the years, and I don’t think she… if she had known that I was a friend of Michael Heseltine, that would have added to my sins, so it was probably well she didn’t know that, really, and I don’t suppose she knew that.

But of course, I had been, and was also when Michael resigned, you know, I was very much on Michael’s side over Westland and all that. And I suppose what I wrote about her was, on the whole, pretty critical in The Observer, too, and that can’t have helped.

A distinguished British political observer, Anthony Howard (1934-2010) wrote for 'The Guardian', 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Observer' for over 40 years, during which time he has commented on the historical significance of global political issues. He was also editor of 'The Listener' and 'The New Statesman', and a reporter on both 'Newsnight' and 'Panorama'. He was awarded the CBE in 1997.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: The Observer, Cementation, Westland Aircraft, Westland Helicopter, Margaret Thatcher, Donald Trelford, Mark Thatcher, Michael Ray Dibdin Heseltine

Duration: 3 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 21 May 2018