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Saturday 19 June 1993
Profile: Lord Midas, his zenith and nadir: Lord McAlpine, party treasurer for Mrs Thatcher
This deeply embarrassing extract comes from The Servant, an impressively polished sequel to Machiavelli's The Prince. Published last autumn, it is the work of Lord McAlpine of West Green, a rumbustious, self-confident and largely self- educated 51-year-old multi-millionaire who once described himself as 'bagman' to Margaret Thatcher. The book was designed as a cynical guide to the functions of the political aide or 'Servant' to a ruler or 'Prince' - a role that has changed surprisingly little over the centuries.
As Conservative Party treasurer from 1975 to 1990 (and deputy party chairman from 1979 to 1983), McAlpine presided over most of the secretive fund-raising that this week caused so much concern among members of the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs. On Thursday, from his home in Venice, he admitted to ITN that he had 'misjudged' in accepting money from Asil Nadir, though, characteristically, he stirred up matters further by adding that he had taken money from US businessmen and Hong Kong nationals. The money had been channelled through secret offshore accounts - of which he said there were 'tons'. From the safety of Turkish Cyprus, the fugitive Nadir claims there are more revelations about his relationship with McAlpine to come.
Margaret Thatcher was McAlpine's Prince. They met in 1975 at a dinner party where the EC referendum campaign was the issue of the day. It was love at first sight. The Servant had found his political Mistress. Days later, the recently elected Tory leader appointed the 32-year-old builder her honorary party treasurer. From then on McAlpine devoted most of his working time to her service.
Of all Thatcher's political aides, the indiscreet peer was the longest serving. He remains the closest and most devoted to her. His characteristically effusive dedication to The Servant reads: 'To the most magnificent, Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, Prime Minister of Great Britain 1979- 1990, from one of her many Servants, who believes she could have been better served.' Coming from anybody else, such a dedication would have been something of a send-up. McAlpine meant every word.
The former party treasurer is unreconciled to Thatcher's expulsion from office and is openly contemptuous of John Major and his team. He often speculates about her return to power following some catastrophic failure on the Major government's part.
It was McAlpine who provided the fallen leader with her headquarters in Great College Street, just off the Embankment, in the bitter months after her defeat. He then made the house available to the rebel Tory MPs who have made Major's life a misery campaigning against the Maastricht treaty.
As well as being an ultra-loyal Thatcherite, McAlpine was quite simply the best fund-raiser in British political history since, well, Lloyd George's agent Maundy Gregory cheerfully traded honours for money on a massive scale - and a standard tariff - between 1916 and 1922. (There is, of course, no suggestion that McAlpine acted improperly.)
But McAlpine has described how he was summoned to Nadir's Berkeley Square headquarters in 1991 and warned that unless the party worked to reduce or lift the charges against him, he would tell all about his huge financial contributions to the Conservative cause. Nadir claims that his lordship turned up 'to say how unfortunate my treatment was' - which is not quite how McAlpine recalls the occasion.
Until recently, he had taken a robustly criticial view of those who want Central Office to adopt more open financial procedures. 'I do not believe much in party accounts - they only cause confusion,' he told friends. 'I was never prepared to show a lot of chaps who were not on our side figures that might give them aid and comfort.' And his own description of his fund-raising techniques, recalled by someone who has dined with him, has the ring of hearty truth about it.
When party treasurer, McAlpine would discreetly invite some fellow captain of industry or commerce to lunch - usually at the Garrick Club. He would ensure the invitation went out on the treasurer's headed writing paper to avoid any misunderstanding. Over lunch and lashings of his favourite Chateau Latour he would, as a social equal, breach the topic of money to fund the forthcoming election campaign. Often, as McAlpine described these occasions, the victim would splutter and comment that even the Thatcher government was made up largely of 'villains'. At which point McAlpine claims he'd say: 'I rather agree with you. But have you looked at the other shower?'
This usually did the trick, although in 1987, McAlpine thought that something more brutal was required. He assembled what a friend described as a collection of Loony-Left literature, including 'Labour-supporting, glad to be gay' stuff. His idea was to mail it to selected tycoons along with an appeal for funds. McAlpine was warned that he might be prosecuted for sending pornography through the post. This so delighted him that he made it his business to spread the tale of Labour's suspect supporters. In addition, he sent copies of the Labour manifesto to 200 leading industrialists. Money rolled in.
Robert Alistair McAlpine, a scion of the construction family, was born in May 1942. He went to Stowe School, from which he dropped out at 16 with only three O-levels, largely as a result of dyslexia. He was known there as 'Roly Poly', although, as he protested indignantly, he was never particularly enamoured of the great British pudding. His thing was egg and chips, on which he claimed to have subsisted at the time.
The lad's taste was to improve dramatically when he came into contact with the young chef Anton Mosimann, who was then developing his skills at the Dorchester Hotel, which the McAlpine family then owned. Mosimann claimed to have served McAlpine with a different lunch every working day for a year. The result was a gourmet with the appetite of a glutton, according to an admiring friend.
A few years before Thatcher's enforced resignation, McAlpine, whom she ennobled in 1984, was upbraided by a meritocratic young Tory Whip after missing a crucial division. 'I suppose you were out guzzling oysters,' he commented with ill- judged rudeness to the Prime Minister's favourite. The burly peer looked at him with contempt and remarked: 'When you Whips learn that gentlemen don't eat oysters in May, we may get some legislation through.'
From school McAlpine had gone to work with the family firm, starting near the bottom as a time-keeper on the so-called South Bank site - a Thames- side development between the Royal Festival Hall and County Hall. The site was notorious for unofficial strikes - some organised by the Communist Party and others by Trotskyist rivals.
McAlpine loved the intrigue and the rough and tumble, and befriended the Behan brothers, who were working on the South Bank site. According to a contemporary: 'He might not have known much about the running of a construction company at that time. But he was good at getting on with Irishmen.' Whatever the reason, he became a director of Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons 30 years ago, aged 21, and has remained there ever since, getting on rather heartily with all sorts and conditions of men.
It would be wrong, however, to dismiss McAlpine as an ill-educated but jovial reactionary who inherited a fortune and settled down to enjoy it. Most of his money is self-made. It comes from judicious property speculation and development in Australia, a field he got into on his own intiative and in which he demonstrated great shrewdness and toughness. He now spends three months a year on an old pearling station at Broome on the remote north-west coast, which he bought with early profits. He collects contemporary and tribal art and artefacts (his Australian aboriginal collection is world class) as well as Celtic and Roman objets. He makes jewellery and owns a profitable and eclectic gallery in Cork Street.
In short, McAlpine is a cultivated and off-beat fellow, as well as a considerable operator. How, then, did his reputation as a rough and tumble, bread-roll throwing aristocrat develop? McAlpine notes in his book that it helps if colleagues think a Servant is 'lazy, amiable and not too clever'. He adds: 'A fullness of figure helps sustain this disguise.' Elsewhere in The Servant he refers to the need to 'deceive and mislead' on his Prince's behalf.
In fact, after a sextuple bypass operation lasting seven hours in 1987, McAlpine changed his hectic lifestyle. He moderated his eating and drinking and stopped smoking. He told Margaret Thatcher, a year before her defeat, that he intended to resign his Central Office appointment in order to concentrate on writing. The Servant was the first product of his endeavours and a political novel is expected to follow.
The Tory MP Willam Cash, a respected constitutional lawyer and medieval historian who leads the anti-Maastricht campaign from Great College Street, thinks that McAlpine is writing of himself. Cash describes the peer as 'a deceptively deep thinker and one of the shrewdest people I've ever met', adding that he combines 'a natural levity, real gravitas and an immense sense of humour'.
Others focus on his well-concealed self- discipline, his firmness of purpose and his Machiavellian skills as a political in- fighter. They quote as an example the occasion on which Lord Thorneycroft, Conservative Party chairman from 1979 to 1985, removed McAlpine's friend Gordon Rees from Central Office. McAlpine leaked the false story of his own protest resignation from the treasuryship in the belief that Thatcher would prevail upon him to stay. Thorneycroft eventually departed, undermined by his nominal subordinate, and by the Prime Minister. It was one among a number of classic Servant and Prince exercises that McAlpine engineered from Conservative Central Office.
And yet most commentators would agree with the friend who insists that there is a 'disorderly, undisciplined, anarchic streak' to the man. They wait with some alarm for further revelations from the villa outside Venice.
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