War Cabinet showdown that helped shape history: Margaret Thatcher's recollections of a turbulent decade at the helm of the Conservative Party and Britain are published today: The Falklands

THE COURSE of the Falklands war - and perhaps the entire political landscape of the 1980s - could have altered dramatically had the War Cabinet not backed Margaret Thatcher at a critical meeting in the spring of 1982.

The former prime minister reveals in her memoirs, The Downing Street Years, that she privately resolved to resign if the committee accepted a settlement brought back from Washington by Francis (now Lord) Pym on 24 April, shortly after he succeeded Lord Carrington as Foreign Secretary.

'I can only describe the document which he brought back as conditional surrender . . . I could not have stayed as Prime Minister had the War Cabinet accepted.'

She spent five hours preparing for the crucial meeting, when she unleashed a clause-by-clause demolition of the text. Why was there no insistence on self-determination for the Falkland Islanders? Why was there to be almost unlimited Argentine immigration and acquisition of property? The rest of the committee agreed and the crisis passed.

Of Pym's sacking in the 1983 reshuffle, the first in a succession of disposals of 'wets', she writes: 'I began by dropping one would-be pilot, whose sense of direction had on several occasions proved faulty.'

Judging by her reference to the Foreign Office, she perceived domestic pressures as part of a continuum at least equal to those from abroad. Advice she received on 2 April summed up the 'flexibility of principle characteristic of that department'.

She was presented with the dangers of a backlash against British expatriates in Argentina, problems with the UN Security Council, the lack of reliance that could be placed on the EC or the US, the risk of Soviet involvement and the disadvantage of being viewed as a colonial power.

The alternative, she writes, was that a 'common or garden dictator' should rule over the Queen's subjects, prevailing by fraud and violence - adding: 'Not while I was Prime Minister.'

From May 1982, she says she was under almost intolerable pressure to 'negotiate for the sake of negotiation' and because so many politicians were desperately anxious to avoid the use of force - 'as if the Argentinians had not already used force by invading in the first place'.

The sinking of the General Belgrano, which she says Admiral Sir John Woodward, task force commander, had concluded was engaging with two destroyers in a 'classic pincer movement' against the British fleet, provoked a large amount of 'malicious and misleading nonsense'.

The claim that the action was political, to undermine a peace initiative from Peru, 'will not bear scrutiny' she says, insisting the plan was communicated to Francis Pym on 1 and 2 May, although the War Cabinet did not see it until later.

The account, compiled from a personal memoire begun in the summer of 1982 and finished at Chequers over the following Easter, is only a partial one. The rest, she says, 'will have to remain secret for a considerable time to come'.

The Downing Street Years; Harper Collins; pounds 25.

(Photograph omitted)

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