When a 16-year-old William Hague railed against the evils of socialism in his famous speech to the Conservative Party conference in 1977, he had no more avid supporter than Margaret Thatcher. She declared him “possibly another young Pitt”.
But behind the scenes it seems that the Iron Lady was considerably less convinced of the precocious Yorkshireman’s talents. Confidential documents show that after she reached Downing Street, Mrs Thatcher torpedoed efforts to appoint Hague – by then aged 21 – as a special adviser to the Treasury, dismissing the move as a “gimmick” and an “embarrassment”.
A memo released by the National Archives in Kew, west London, shows how the Prime Minister put the future Tory leader’s career firmly on ice in 1983 by rejecting efforts by her then Chancellor Nigel Lawson to promote the Conservative Party poster boy into a prime economic role.
In a letter seeking his appointment as special adviser to then Treasury Chief Secretary Leon Brittan, a senior official reminded Mrs Thatcher of Hague’s party conference speech, in which he wowed the Tory faithful both as a right-wing firebrand and Donny Osmond lookalike, albeit with his trademark Yorkshire vowels. But Mrs Thatcher, who was also advised that Hague’s appointment was largely a fait accompli, responded furiously to the request, scrawling across the memo “No” and then underlining it three times. She continued: “This is a gimmick and would be deeply resented by many who have financial economic experience.”
Her refusal to buy into the cult of youth propelling forward her party’s young Turks in 1983, who also included Michael Portillo and Oliver Letwin, served only to postpone rather than cancel the current Foreign Secretary’s ascent up Tory ranks to become leader in 1997.
He was returned to his position within the Conservative Research Department at Central Office, the proving ground for generations of bright party apparatchiks including David Cameron, before eventually entering Parliament in 1989 by taking Lord Brittan’s vacant seat.
But the depth of Mrs Thatcher’s opposition to Hague’s early promotion will come as a surprise to many who had witnessed her enthusiastic applause during his 1977 conference speech and public pronouncement that he was destined for high office. Her scepticism was shared by Cabinet Secretary Robin Butler, who while noting that Hague had turned down a chance to stand as an MP to take the special adviser job, questioned just what advice he could offer to Lord Brittan.
He wrote: “Promising though William Hague is, it is a bit difficult to see what a 21-year-old will contribute as a special adviser in the Treasury.” The message was then conveyed back across Whitehall to Nigel Lawson in only slightly more diplomatic language. A note of a meeting between Mrs Thatcher and her Chancellor said: “The appointment of someone so young and with so little experience would be an embarrassment to the Government and would be resented by more experienced people in the Conservative Research Department.”
The Foreign Secretary yesterday deployed his diplomatic powers and took news of his prime ministerial rebuttal with good grace, pointing that he had worked for the Conservatives for only three months surrounding the 1983 general election. A source close to Mr Hague said: “The Foreign Secretary thinks that Margaret Thatcher was, as usual, right... It was a great experience and a wonderful introduction to politics at a high level. He is still very proud that Margaret Thatcher gave him her backing when he stood for the leadership of the Conservative Party 14 years later.”
The “Spad” spat was one of several detailed in the documents, which chronicled concern that the appointment of Mr Portillo also to a role in the Treasury might cause unrest over his generous £20,000 salary and revealed that Mr Letwin, currently a Cabinet Office minister, was known to Mrs Thatcher via his parents. A letter recommending his appointment as an education adviser nonetheless noted that he was a “particularly mature as well as intelligent young man.”
Flood plan: Tories ‘considered sacrificing Canvey Island to save London from floods’
Margaret Thatcher was asked to consider sacrificing vast swathes of Essex and Kent to protect London in the event of a flood prior to completion of the Thames barrier, secret papers show.
A memo to the Prime Minister reveals civil servants proposed blowing up flood defences along the Essex and Kent coasts, built at a cost of £250m, as a contingency plan for dealing with a storm surge along the Thames because work on the barrier was being delayed by a strike.
Documents show officials singled out Canvey Island on the Essex coast as being at “major risk of loss of life” should the option to save central London be pursued.
The dilemma came in 1982 after industrial action by Teesside dockers, where the gates for the £500m barrier were being manufactured, meant the structure might not have been completed before winter and potential storms early in 1983.
The memo to Mrs Thatcher from a Downing Street official laid out options identified by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department for Environment, from redoubled efforts to settle the strike to using the Army to ship and install the gates. It added: “If all else fails it might be necessary to provide that, if a major surge was threatened, the flood defences downstream would be breached so that some of the water would flood low-lying land in Essex and Kent rather than central London.” With no small degree of understatement, the document suggested the approach – involving not only state-sanctioned flooding of private property but the inundation of Baroness Thatcher’s electoral heartland – “seems unlikely to be practicable”.
Lady Thatcher’s views go unrecorded. Fortunately for Lady Thatcher and people on Canvey Island, the dispute was settled and the barrier completed before November 1982.
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