Baroness Falkender: The lavender lady

Harold Wilson's controversial secretary is back in the news, angered by the BBC's portrayal of her

If you have heard of her at all, you probably thought that she was dead. Lady Falkender, the life peer formerly known as Marcia Williams, is a name from a distant age. That was when there was a Labour prime minister who had achieved the unheard-of feat of leading his party to victory in four general elections, who had secretly settled on a date for his resignation. There was a bunker mentality in 10 Downing Street, and a scandal involving the award of peerages.

OK, perhaps some of it has a familiar ring, but even in the weird world of New Labour there is nobody like Marcia Williams. Harold Wilson's private and political secretary, she was for a short period one of the most famous women in Britain. When President Nixon visited Downing Street in April 1974, he spotted a woman press officer and asked: "Say, is that the one we've been reading about?" She was also, arguably, the most powerful woman in Britain - clever, strong-willed, ambitious, charming, manipulative and insecure.

Her long shadow is discernible in this year's allegations of "cash for peerages". Until 1966, the award of peerages was the prerogative of the Chief Whip, not the Prime Minister. Harold Wilson took that power for himself, and later told his policy adviser, Bernard Donoughue, that he did it because "that gal Marcia insisted on it". Another detail in Donoughue's diary with a contemporary ring is "that gal" charged her hairdressing bills to the Labour Party.

Many years have passed since Williams slipped out of the public eye and now she exists, it seems, only as a name in books and memoirs. Lady Falkender is 74 years old, and can sometimes be spotted in the House of Lords, of which she has been a silent member for 32 years. She votes from time to time. Nine days ago, the Lords argued over a Bill that would have given doctors the right to assist their patients to die in strictly limited circumstances. Lady Falkender voted against it.

Now the BBC has received a painful reminder that the old lady is with us still. A letter from the libel lawyers, Carter-Ruck, has forced the corporation to cancel a repeat of its drama The Lavender List. The play, written by the journalist Francis Wheen, has been shown on BBC4, to good reviews, and was scheduled for terrestrial television. If Lady Falkender has her way, it will never be shown again.

This has caused some surprise because the claims around which Mr Wheen wound his story are not new. She denies that she drafted Harold Wilson's now-infamous resignation honours list, the so-called Lavender List, and denies the implication that she had an affair with Wilson in the 1950s. That is a very old rumour indeed, that probably began when she separated from her husband, Ed Williams, in the late 1950s. "Funny fellow, Wilson," Harold Macmillan once said. "Keeps his mistress at No 10. Always kept mine in St John's Wood." One record company hinted at the story on the cover of a record. The resulting damages provided income for the charity of Harold Wilson's choice for years.

When the press found out that Williams had two young sons, born while she was working at Downing Street in the late 1960s, they fell over each other for evidence of Wilson's paternity. It emerged that the father was actually Walter Terry, political editor of the Daily Mail. The national press kept discreetly silent about this until a few years later when Private Eye broke the story.

Lord Archer of Sandwell, who was a minister in the Labour Government, says: "I thought it was established years ago that this rumour wasn't true. Apart from his first-class mind, Harold Wilson always struck me as an ordinary, dull chap who didn't do the things us ordinary, dull chaps don't do."

The Wilson-Williams relationship began with an anonymous letter to Harold Wilson, in 1956, accurately warning that staff at the party's headquarters were plotting against him. The author was Marcia Williams, then 24, a recent graduate of London University, employed as a typist by Morgan Phillips, general secretary of the Labour Party.

Lady Falkender's father was a Northamptonshire builder named Henry Field. There seems to have been tension in the family. When Harold Wilson lost office in 1970 and Marcia seized his papers her brother, Tony Field, obligingly teamed up with the ex-PM to break into her garage to recover them. On Tony's wedding day, in 1973, his passport, airline tickets and money went missing. Convinced that his sister had stolen them, he called the police. She told the officers that she had put them away for "safe keeping".

She later claimed that she met Harold Wilson because she was standing at a bus stop when he happened to offer her a lift.

Joe Haines, Wilson's former press secretary, believes that they actually met at a notorious dinner with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, at which Khrushchev and the Labour MP George Brown had a drunken argument. Williams took it down in shorthand. Wilson reportedly drove her home after dinner.

According to Haines: "Something of significance must have happened that night. Discussions recalling that evening always made Marcia jumpy, so much so that it became a standing joke among a few of us that if I wanted to induce panic in her, I would simply send her a postcard with the numbers 23456 on it. She would have known that they stood for 23 April 1956."

Those who worked inside the court were bemused and shocked by the hold she exerted over the Prime Minister. Lord Donoughue's diaries make constant reference to her "screaming," "shouting" and "ranting" at him. Haines recalled being in the Prime Minister's office in the Commons when the recently ennobled Lady Falkender burst in to demand that Wilson accompany her to a function. He wearily agreed, and slipped back as soon as he could - but she burst in again and exclaimed. "You little cunt, what do you think you're doing? You come back with me at once."

Allegedly, she had a book containing a long list of people she wanted rewarded with peerages or other honours. However, she has always maintained that Harold Wilson was responsible for the infamous list that he sent to the Queen after his resignation, which included businessmen Joe Kagan, who later went to prison, and Eric Miller, who committed suicide when the police were on his trail.

Haines has stuck consistently to what he wrote in 1977, that "the list from which Sir Harold Wilson prepared his own list was Lady Falkender's, written out in her own hand on the lavender-coloured notepaper she often used". This is backed up by one of Lord Donoughue's diary entries, which recorded Wilson telling one of his staff that he had been rowing with Lady Falkender, who was demanding "peerages for friends".

Lord Donoughue recorded: "She had reminded him of his obligations to her from long ago. He said, 'because of that [it] does not mean that I have to spend 20 years' penal servitude afterwards'." Whatever passed between Harold Wilson and young Mrs Williams in 1956, the effect lasted.

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