Men of Secrets II

John Rentoul

butler 299x173 Men of Secrets IIThe video and transcript of the full interview with Robin Butler, Cabinet Secretary 1988-98, in the 10 Downing Street history series is now on the Mile End Group cabinet secretaries website.

Interviewed by Anthony Seldon, Lord Butler reflects on the difference between the Margaret Thatcher he had known as her principal private secretary in the middle phase of her premiership, 1982-85, and as Cabinet Secretary from 1988:

Margaret Thatcher, by the time I became Cabinet Secretary was very well established, was predominant in the Cabinet, had a huge national and international reputation, and I think was more tired than when I served her as Principal Private Secretary, understandably. And the form which her tiredness took was not that she was any less acute, but she wasn’t as keen to argue long into the night as she had been previously. And so she was a bit shorter with… a bit more abrupt in taking decisions and a bit more dependent on other people in her private office. And you know, one could say that in the end that was her undoing, over both Europe and the council tax – the community charge.

He also has a nugget about the IRA mortar attack on Downing Street in 1991, which sheds some light on the spies’ attitude towards Saddam Hussein at the time:

Sitting in the Cabinet Room, there was a meeting going on of the Gulf War Cabinet. I was sitting next to John Major and what I remember clearly, I don’t think it’s come out in any of the memoirs, was what we were worried about was Iraq might launch a terrorist attack in London, and the last word I remember John Major uttering before the mortar bomb exploded was the word ‘bomb’.

His account of the Jonathan Aitken business corroborates Lord Armstrong’s concern, as a fellow member of the “discretion of cabinet secretaries” (Peter Hennessy says that’s the collective noun), about the head of the civil service being drawn into politics:

The most difficult moment for me personally was when I had to investigate some of the allegations that were made by Mohamed Al Fayed against Cabinet ministers, not all Cabinet ministers, ministers and MPs, about various forms of corruption. I had to look into those, and it was made particularly difficult because I was misled by Jonathan Aitken. I was foolish enough to say publicly that I believed his story, and then of course in a court case his story turned out to have been untrue. So I think, you know, if I think back at what was the most difficult for me personally, most embarrassing, that was the most difficult episode.

AS: And could you explain why as a Cabinet Secretary you were being involved in that legalistic area?

LB: Well, because I was advising the Prime Minister on whether ministers had broken the Ministerial Code … There’s now an independent adviser to the Prime Minister on whether ministers have broken the Ministerial Code, and I think that’s rather an improvement.

Then there is the story of the Brighton bomb of 1984. That was when he was principal private secretary rather than Cabinet Secretary and it has been told many times before. Several times recently it has been told wrongly, however, with the common suggestion that Margaret Thatcher’s life was saved because Denis insisted she stop working and come to bed. So here it is again:

LB: Well it was during the Conservative Party Conference and, of course, the Principal Private Secretary has got no part to play in a political… the political affairs of the Party Conference but I used to attend. I think my predecessors attended in order to carry through the government business, because the Prime Minister has to go on doing government business, and also there’s part of the Party Conference speech that… parts of the speech that have to be cleared with Whitehall to make sure that what’s being said is right. Anyway, Mrs Thatcher used to work long into the night before completing her Party Conference speech, and on this particular occasion she actually finished quite early. She finished – by her standards – she finished at about 2:30 in the morning, and I had a document that Number Ten wanted to get a decision from her on by breakfast next morning. So I said to her would she take this and look at it overnight and let me know what her decision was in the morning. By this time all the speech-writers had left the room and it was just she and I in the… in her sitting room in the Grand Hotel. And she said, ‘If you don’t mind I’d like to look at it tonight and then I can concentrate on my speech overnight.’ So she was sitting in this armchair, about as far away as you are, and looking at this document, and I was sitting in an armchair facing her, just thinking how nice it would be to get to bed quite soon. And, while she was looking at the piece of paper a… there was this loud explosion. And I’d heard several bombs in my time at Number Ten – I’d heard the Price Sisters’ bomb during Ted Heath’s time, the bomb that blew up Airey Neave, the Carlton House bomb – so I knew at once what it was, and so I came to rather rapidly and thought, well now, here you are with the… alone with the Prime Minister, somebody’s trying to blow her up, so you better do something sensible. So I said to her, ‘I think you ought to come away from the windows in case there is another bomb.’ Now the extraordinary thing was that the lights didn’t go out, so the lights stayed on, by some extraordinary chance. And we went across the room, and she said, ‘I must see if Denis is alright’, and so she opened the door to the bedroom, and through the door of the bedroom you could hear the sounds of falling masonry, which was actually the bathroom ceiling collapsing. And what I should have done is to say, ‘Stand back Prime Minister, I’m more dispensable than you are. I think I should go and see’, but not wishing to stand between a lady and her bedroom I let her go in. And it seemed like minutes but it was only a few seconds and she emerged with Denis Thatcher pulling flannel trousers over his pyjamas. And we went out into the corridor, and as we looked up the corridor we saw what looked like smoke coming out of the door of the rooms two doors along, which I knew were Geoffrey Howe’s rooms. So I said, ‘Oh gosh, it looks as if there’s been a bomb in Geoffrey Howe’s room’, but then the door beyond opened and out came Geoffrey, in his dressing gown, blinking. Anyway, we stood there in the corridor, and I said to Margaret Thatcher, ‘Well there’s been a bomb. I think what I ought to advise you to do, is to get you back to London.’ And she said, ‘I’m not leaving’. And at that moment a fireman arrived and said, ‘Follow me’, and we followed him and he took us down the corridor, and we got to the end of the corridor, and it was a cul-de-sac. So he said, ‘follow me back’, and we went along, and, as I say, the lights were still on, and we went downstairs in the Grand Hotel and where the foyer had been was full of rubble. And so, my next assumption was that the bomb had been placed down there. Margaret Thatcher broke off to see if everybody who was in the front desk was accounted for, which they were. And then we went out of the back where there were Number Ten cars. And the police contingency plan worked very quickly… moved very quickly into action. But at that point I thought, well now, all the Number Ten papers are lying about upstairs, and also the Prime Minister’s clothes, and my clothes, and so on. So, with one of the Prime Minister’s detectives, I went back up, not realising that the hotel was hanging by a thread above our heads. And I packed away the Number Ten papers, and I packed her clothes, and my clothes, and Denis’ clothes, and we went down, and we joined the car, and caught up with the party at Hove Police Station, where by this time the good and great of the land, in various stages of undress, were being collected up. And I remember at that point I thought it would be helpful if Number Ten switchboard rang people’s relations and so on, so that when they heard the 7 o’clock news they’d know that their loved ones were safe. So I collected the names of those who’d like to have their relations rung up, and I rang the Number Ten switchboard and asked them to do it. But unfortunately they – certainly in my case – misunderstood the instruction and my wife was fast asleep in bed at 4 in the morning and the telephone rang, and the Number Ten switchboard said, ‘We just want to let you know that Robin’s alright.’ And she said, ‘Very kind of you but I never supposed he wasn’t.’ Anyway, by the time the… by the time the 7 o’clock news came on she knew.

AS: And she was calm and resolute?

LB: Extraordinarily so. It was one of those moments where there can be no prepared reaction. You react, as it were, by instinct. Her first instinct was to see if her husband was all right. The second instinct, when we’d got to the Lewis Police Training College, where they took us to, and I turned, she… there was a room for her, and she went there, and Denis also had a room, and I slept on the bench in the day room where there was a telephone. And after we’d been there for about half an hour the telephone rang, and it was John Gummer, the Chairman of the Party, saying, ‘things are much worse than we’d supposed. They’ve already found some people dead, and if you turn on the television, the cameras are here. They’re digging for Norman Tebbit and John Wakeham.’ And so, I thought, well shall I wake the Prime Minister up? And then I thought no, let her get some sleep. By this time it was 5, after 5 in the morning. And I turned on the television, watched Norman Tebbit being brought out – they were still digging for John Wakeham. And at 8 o’clock in the morning Mrs Thatcher appeared, and I said, ‘It’s much worse than we’d supposed, and Norman Tebbit and John Wakeham are seriously injured, and Roberta Wakeham is dead, and Margaret Tebbit is seriously injured, and the Macleans are dead.’ And she hardly hesitated for a moment, and said, ‘Well it’s 8 o’clock, and the Conference must begin on time at 9 o’clock.’ I was appalled. I said, ‘Surely you can’t go on with the Conference? You know, some of your closest colleagues have been killed, and others are injured’. And she said, without any hesitation, ‘We must show that terrorism can’t defeat democracy.’ And of course she was right. And so the Conference did start at 9 o’clock. She was on the platform, dressed in the clothes that I’d brought out of the Grand Hotel, looking like a new pin. And she said, ‘Here we are, shaken but not daunted.’ And it was a marvellous gesture of strength.

Finally, he contradicts suggestions of tension between him and Tony Blair, whom he served for just eight months as Cabinet Secretary, and of whom he has been critical over the Iraq war despite concluding in his inquiry into the pre-war intelligence that no one was to blame for its failings:

[1997] was a very exciting time for all the Civil Service because it was a change in government after 18 years. We wanted to show that we would serve a Labour government as commitedly as we’d served the Conservative government. We didn’t know them as well. I wanted to manage the transition to the new government smoothly. And so, you know, that was a challenging but also exciting time. I felt very fortunate really, because I had eight months of the Labour government. If we hadn’t got on well together well, you know, they weren’t going to keep me forever. Actually I think, personally anyway, I got on extremely well with Tony Blair. He thought the transition went well. He was grateful and kind to me personally. And so, you know, I left feeling I’d really left at the right time and had a very good time.

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