The inner workings of John Major’s government have been laid bare in newly released archive documents which show how aides were asked to procure an armoured limo for the PM, prevented him from snubbing Margaret Thatcher and from getting caught up in a TV comic’s ruse.
The tranche of documents, published today for the first time since they were written in 1997, also show the serious side of government, including how ministers handled tragedies like the Marchioness inquest and Hillsborough disaster.
And they demonstrate how the UK’s relationship with the European Union has long dominated political life and how some of the key players in the current Brexit debate were making the argument against closer EU membership decades ago.
Some of the most interesting elements from more than 200 documents and Cabinet minutes are those which show the internal politics which drove the Major government.
The Conservatives were just about holding on to power in early 1997 but the party was deeply split over Europe and in the summer of that year Tony Blair won the general election by a landslide.
The documents show how much time and energy was spent on managing the UK’s relationship with the European Union during this time, especially around the implementation of the Schengen Agreement between 1996 and 1997.
In pages and pages of detailed notes back and forth between ministers and civil servants the extent of the Conservative split on the issue becomes clear, with one note from senior diplomat John Holmes to the prime minister stating that the foreign secretary at the time Douglas Hurd and David Davis MP, a prominent Eurosceptic, cannot agree over how far the UK should go in fighting for concessions from the EU.
The document notes: “The foreign secretary thinks this is unrealistic and so does not agree. Nor do I. But David Davis is so far unrepentant.”
Other papers released show the more frivolous side of Number 10, including personal hand-written asides attached to official documents.
In one set of documents junior Number 10 staff are admonished for using the government car service, in another staff of Cabinet ministers are told to stop calling the Downing Street clerks to ask when Cabinet might be over, recorded in Cabinet minutes as: “F*** off and do not bother the duty clerks during cabinet.”
Another shows Mr Major asked staff to look into getting an armoured stretch limousine for him to use when attending events accompanied by his wife or an interpreter. The notes state that the existing cars are not able to accommodate other guests because of security staff who guard the prime minister.
But the response from the Government Car Service shows it would have cost around £400,000 to design and build and take over a year to deliver, by which time Mr Major would have left office – not that he would have known it at the time.
Another paper asks if it would be possible to get Ford Galaxy cars instead of Mondeos because the current models steam up as they do not have air conditioning.
The PM was also warned by aides that it would be seen as a “snub” if he failed to attend a 70th birthday dinner for Margaret Thatcher, according to the newly released files.
Officials initially urged him to give the event a miss, expressing concern about Lady Thatcher’s political “games”, however they reluctantly changed their minds amid concerns that it would go down badly with the Conservative Party if he was not there.
In a hand-written note giving the go-ahead to accept the invite Mr Major’s principal private secretary, Alex Allan, wrote to his personal assistant: “Both PM & Norma will go (groan!).”
Other documents reveal near misses, including a note on how impressionist Rory Bremner may have inadvertently helped to defuse a Tory revolt against Mr Major.
Papers show Mr Bremner telephoned rebel MPs as an “experiment” to see if his impersonation of the prime minister could convince people who knew him.
But his appeal for support sounded so genuine the rebels agreed to “lay off” and help to carry the government through.
Bremner made the calls in October 1993 ahead of the launch of his new show on Channel 4 – just as Mr Major was preparing for a rough ride from Eurosceptics at the party conference in Blackpool.
The comedian rang MPs Sir Richard Body, John Carlisle and Ann Winterton, claiming to be the prime minister calling from Malaysia, where he was on an official visit.
When one of the MPs then contacted No 10, cabinet secretary Sir Robin Butler immediately tried to alert them that the calls were hoaxes.
However Sir Richard in particular was so taken in by Bremner’s impersonation he refused to accept he had not been speaking to Mr Major.
According to the official note of their conversation, he told Sir Robin it was “a very good thing” the prime minister had made the call.
He said he had spoken afterwards to Mr Carlisle and they had agreed they should back up Mr Major and help the government through.