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'Battle-hardened': an evening in Paris

To mark the 25th anniversary of MT's leaving office as PM, we are releasing a tape of Bernard Ingham's off the record press briefings in the Paris Embassy on the night of the first leadership ballot, 20/21 Nov 1990.

The tape has never been played in public before. Its survival was a matter of chance and will be a surprise even to people who were there.

The briefing tape takes us beyond the endlessly replayed clip of MT at the foot of the Embassy steps. We step instead into the building itself, ninety minutes or so afterwards, sitting in with the press to hear Bernard Ingham's take on it all. There is a surprising lightness and humour to the unscripted exchanges that followed, though of course there was art in Ingham's wit - and his underlying mood was dark.

1990 Nov 20: the first ballot

"Disappointed that it is not quite enough": MT speaks to the press immediately after the first ballot result

People talk in shorthand of "the first ballot" in November 1990, but really it was the last in a long sequence stretching back to 1950. That Tuesday evening marked the last time MT stood for election to anything, the beginning of the very end of the Thatcher premiership, the moment the leadership crisis span out of her control.

It was also, of course, one of the final briefings Bernard Ingham ever gave as her Press Secretary, a role he had played with mastery since 1979. Before Ingham the job had barely registered with the public, with him it was transformed and its occupant acknowledged a powerful and prominent figure. Fittingly he left office with his boss only a week later.

The chronology is simple enough. MT arrived at the Embassy around 5.45, she got the result of the leadership ballot around 7.30, spoke with the press, consulted by phone with family and colleagues in London then departed for the CSCE summit dinner in Versailles around 9.

There were two briefings that evening - the first shortly after MT left, the second and shorter after she returned, beginning around 1.10am. The travelling British press were summoned to the Embassy and the tape recorder prudently switched on. Ingham led the briefing with a Foreign Office man almost (but not quite) silent at his side. Probably it was the UK Ambassador to France, Sir Ewen Fergusson. Sir Bernard cannot recall and there is no written record of who was present.

What were called "Lobby rules" applied to the briefing, named after the group of British journalists with privileged access to the backstairs and corridors of Westminster, known collectively as the Lobby. Nothing was to be quoted as having been said by Ingham or his co-briefer, rather it was to be attributed to "senior British sources" or similar. Of course, the identity of those sources was clear enough to any reader or viewer who understood the rules, but the ruse preserved a degree of deniability and freedom to speak with greater frankness.

Why was the tape made? Lobby briefings in London were not recorded: rather, summaries were written within the Press Office. Probably things were different in Paris because there was judged to be a risk that the rules would be broken and officials directly quoted in the press reports. It is relevant that the Lobby system had been under strain in Britain for a number of years, some newspapers openly refusing to be represented or to play by the rules, arguing that the system allowed government to manipulate the press. It was doubly difficult to operate when the Prime Minister was abroad because many of the British journalists present were not members of the Lobby in the first place.

9pm: the first briefing

The first briefing took place ninety minutes or so after the news broke that MT had not secured re-election outright and that her future as Prime Minister was very much in doubt. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the journalists present found themselves at the centre of the largest news story in the world that evening. For some it was probably the biggest story they would ever cover.

For the journalists the opening item of business in the briefing was to establish the sequence of events, an essential framework for their stories. Knowing this, Ingham began there, with the result that a disproportionate amount of scarce time was spent discussing such matters as MT's phone calls after she heard news of the ballot. Who did she ring? Where were they? What was said? Why did she call, and precisely when? At most the questions established that MT had made the decision to put her name forward for the second ballot immediately she heard the result of the first, not pausing to consult - or having consulted already on a contingency basis. Plainly many of these questions were asked more or less for the sake of it, in the knowledge that Ingham would not be able to answer.

There were questions of course as to MT's reaction to the news. Ingham would not be drawn beyong the formula that the Prime Minister was 'disappointed', the word she herself had used when she came down the Embassy steps. Had he agreed that word with her, or was he left to make the best of it? Sir Bernard's recollection is that it was a word that came to everyone's mind when they heard the result in Peter Morrison's room, reflecting Morrison's considerable understatement: "Not as good as we hoped". Again, fortunately perhaps, the journalists did not press.

It is possible that these somewhat sterile discussions suited Ingham a little, because reading a transcript of the briefings, Sir Bernard has commented that he was very glad journalists had not pressed him harder on the most difficult question of all: could MT survive as leader? His private view was that she probably could not. Finally, asked the point outright by ITN's Peter Allen, Ingham replied simply: "The Prime Minister is going to take it to a second round. She is going to fight a second round, full stop".

But he was not yet out of the wood. Almost immediately he got into a bit of trouble on a related question, almost equally difficult and important. MT's nominees as leader on the first ballot had been the Chancellor and Foreign Secretary, John Major and Douglas Hurd. Were they going to back her a second time?

The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, had already done so, speaking moments after MT at the bottom of the Embassy steps. Perhaps Ingham had not heard his words directly, because he thought Hurd had told the press he had consulted with Major before speaking. In fact he made no such assertion - and the Foreign Office man present in the briefing pointedly joined with the journalists in correcting the mistake, twice in fact, quietly but audibly saying "not to my knowledge" and "I don't know". Ingham fell back on the suggestion that nonetheless a call had taken place - "I think they have talked at any rate" - but the exchange must have drawn attention to the fact that Major's position was ambiguous. Again Peter Allen gets good marks - he was one of those who pressed the issue.

And then it was back to the journalistic staples: times, places, logistics. Would MT have got to Versailles in time for the ballet? (A: probably not.) Would there be a press conference tomorrow? (A: no, cancelled.) When would they get home - what about the rumour that she was leaving that night? Could they get pictures of her arriving back at Northolt? All they got was a promise of a further chat when she got back from the ballet in the early hours.

1.10am: the second briefing

Meeting at 1.10 in the morning of Wednesday 21 Nov, they began again with the bread-and-butter stuff, or rather - since we are talking about supper in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles - a somewhat superior menu. Without even being asked Ingham told them what the PM had just consumed:

Soup, lobster, chicken foie gras, cheese nougat glacé, Montrachet 85, Château Margaux 78 and champagne 83

Cue the inevitable question - who stumped up? - to which he had the best possible answer: "the French pay for all".

Ingham was clearly playing for laughs where he could. There had been a question in the first briefing, whether she would be sending congratulations to Heseltine, which drew from him a nicely timed comical pause. And he managed a brilliant riposte at the end, faced with a variation on that nasty question about the position of the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor. Why had they not signed nomination papers for the second ballot, someone asked? "Why the delay this time?"

Well, we are in Paris, it is late at night, they have been to the ballet, they have been to Versailles. What do you want, blood?

There were more knockabout exchanges, one of them particularly telling. There is no sign that the FCO man was present at this second briefing, and a big clue that he wasn't there came when Ingham mentioned the fact that having returned from Versailles MT was having a drink with the Foreign Secretary. There were groans from the journalists at the mention of Hurd, laughter, a boo - almost as if they were calling out the pantomime villain as he crept up behind the unsuspecting heroine. Some of those around MT that evening recall similar feelings towards Hurd, fairly or unfairly, a sense that he was pleased with the outcome.

Finally there was talk of her return to Britain to prepare for the No Confidence debate, her last big Commons performance as PM and one of her best. Someone seems to have asked Ingham if she was worried by it, drawing this reply:

For heaven’s sake, when you’ve done eleven and a half years, I mean you are a pretty seasoned campaigner. Battle-hardened I think is the word. You know.

The words would have applied equally well to himself.

Tape, transcripts & film: site resources for 20-22 Nov

[PUBLICATION: SATURDAY 28 NOV 2015]

Read and listen to the briefings

Read all our documents, tape & film from 20-22 Nov 1990

If you were at the briefings and can add any detail, or improve the transcript (eg, by identifying who spoke when), please get in touch.