'I was handbagged by Mrs Thatcher'
- 9 April 2013
- From the section UK Politics
Margaret Thatcher's handbag was an icon of an era: a weapon wielded against opponents or unfortunate ministers.
Its fame even reached the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, which defines the verb "to handbag" as: (of a woman politician), treat (a person, idea etc) ruthlessly or insensitively.
Lady Thatcher herself once told an interviewer: "Of course, I am obstinate in defending our liberties and our law. That is why I carry a big handbag."
But what about the victims of a Thatcher handbagging? Here is how some of them have remembered the experience.
JAMES BAKER, SPEAKING WHEN US SECRETARY OF STATE
Paying tribute to Mrs Thatcher, James Baker described the "Thatcher doctrine":
"First, decide what is right, even if that is not always convenient or expedient.
"Second, let people know what is right, give people a sound direction, trust them - sooner or later they will recognise what is right.
"Third, be persistent; don't give up and don't let up.
"Fourth and finally, when negotiations stall, get out the handbag! The solution is always there, usually written on a small piece of paper deep within it."
KENNETH BAKER, FORMER EDUCATION SECRETARY
"When Maggie was really up against it, she would put her handbag on the cabinet table and take out a well-crumpled paper.
"This was the brief that came from no-one knew whom - a friend, or someone who had rung her up.
"It was unpredictable, sometimes illuminating, at others weird, sometimes an interesting new light, at others a worthless piece of gossip.
"Whenever this happened, the cabinet secretary would pale, and the minister would raise his eyes to the ceiling.
"Many are the ministers who have cursed the contents of that wretched blue handbag."
ROBERT ARMSTRONG, FORMER CABINET SECRETARY
Lord Armstrong says he never saw any "physical use of the handbag", nor was it necessarily what came out of the handbag which caused him concern.
"I was more worried about what went into the handbag. Sometimes highly classified documents would disappear into the handbag and out of the official system," he said.
He also remembers falling foul of a handbagging himself.
"Before I took up the job, I was taken into the cabinet by my predecessor to see what happened," he says.
"I sat next to him and during the course of the meeting he had occasion to pass Mrs Thatcher a little note which he did not want the rest of the cabinet to know about.
"He scribbled it on his knee and passed it onto her knee. She took it out and looked at it and said to his embarrassment: "I never could read your writing, John. You will tell me what this says?"
Lord Armstrong concluded that it was very important any notes should be legible and so, when he had to pass a note under the table a few meetings later, he wrote it with exquisite care.
Lady Thatcher's reaction was blunt: "Your writing is just as difficult to read as John's, Robert."
NORMAN LAMONT, FORMER CHANCELLOR
"I remember vividly Mrs Thatcher turning on me, in front of colleagues, and saying very sharply: 'You are hopeless. You are thoroughly negative. If you had been in my government since 1979, I would have achieved nothing.'
"I managed to pull myself together and reply: 'Prime minister, you are invariably right on most matters but there is one point on which you are quite wrong. I have been in your government since 1979.'"
(From Margaret Thatcher: A Tribute in Words and Pictures, edited by Iain Dale)
ALAN DUNCAN, TORY FRONTBENCHER
"In 1996, I hosted a summer drinks party in my London garden. Mrs T was the guest of honour. There was much debate at the time about defence budgets, and she assailed Michael Portillo - then defence secretary - with questions about what would be left of our defence capability.
"Hoping to settle her down, Michael said: 'Don't worry, Margaret, we have lots of invitations to tender.'
"She exploded: 'You cannot win a war with invitations to tender!' and then she paused and said: 'I am so sorry, Michael, I must not, I must not.' She turned around.
"Then, just as everyone thought that peace had broken out, she swivelled vigorously on her heels, jabbed her finger at Michael Portillo and said: 'Michael, have you ever won a war? I have!'"
MICHAEL HESELTINE, FORMER DEFENCE SECRETARY
"I had been brought up to believe that one listened to what one's colleagues had to say before intervening. In particular, I deferred to members of the opposite sex.
"Yet I learnt quickly that it was all too easy to find one's arguments cut off in midstream by prime ministerial interruption, to have the case one wishes to deploy hijacked by premature conclusions and often hectoring interventions.
"One either gave in to it or one learnt to fight back. Hard experience taught me to wait until Mrs Thatcher paused for breath and then I began again - and again - and again - until I was satisfied that what I had to say had been clearly heard."
NORMAN TEBBIT, FORMER CONSERVATIVE CHAIRMAN
"The art of being a successful cabinet minister was to have worked out in advance how you shot down the advice that was in her handbag and if you did it well enough the handbag was not opened."
JOHN SERGEANT, FORMER BBC CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT
"I was in the courtyard of the British Embassy in Paris when the result of the ballot for the Tory leadership came through on my earpiece: 204 for Thatcher as against 152 for Heseltine.
"I was live on the Six O'Clock News, telling Peter Sissons that Mrs Thatcher would be taking time to consider her position and that there would be no statement when he - and 13 million viewers - all said, 'She's behind you.'
"You don't tend to turn around when you're on live TV and facing a camera. So I stood my ground but then my cameraman started jumping up and down and, next thing, she was beside me saying, 'Where is the microphone?'
"Evidently one had been set up on the other side of the courtyard, but there was confusion and so I gave her mine.
"I was not, as has gone down in popular legend, handbagged by her, though Bernard Ingham, her press secretary, who was with her, did move me aside.
"It was just a technical misunderstanding but for those watching it was a great pantomime scene - the prime minister apparently fighting with me for a microphone."
HELMUT KOHL, FORMER GERMAN CHANCELLOR
In his memoirs, Helmut Kohl said Mrs Thatcher was "ice cold in pursuit of her interests" when she was negotiating the UK's budget rebate at European talks in 1984.
He writes: "The British prime minister, who had completely isolated herself with her position, temporarily lost her nerves and completely lost her temper with me.
"She argued that Germany had to support Britain because British troops were stationed here."
KEN CLARKE, FORMER CHANCELLOR
Ken Clarke says he used to have "terrible rows" with Mrs Thatcher, "but all she did was promote me".
He recalls that Mrs Thatcher would speak for half the time in committee meetings and other ministers for the rest.
"I have a rather bad habit of interrupting people and I am not short of things to say myself," he confessed.
"We could have rows in which neither of us was able to finish a sentence."
DAVID HOLMES, FORMER BRITISH AIRWAYS EXECUTIVE
David Holmes was in charge of government affairs at BA when he had a head-on collision with Lady Thatcher at the airline's stand at the Conservative Party conference in 1997.
It came after BA had replaced their traditional union jack tailfin design with "ethnic" type designs.
Mr Holmes said: "She came to the stand and I thought there was nothing to talk about but these tailfins so I thought I had better ask what she thought of them."
Lady Thatcher was evidently not impressed with them - something she made plain over a 10 or 15-minute conversation with Mr Holmes, in the full glare of the cameras.
"She was interested but she had obviously made her mind up," he said.
Lady Thatcher told him: "We fly the British flag, not those awful things you put on tails. It's terrible."
She then got a tissue from her handbag and covered up the design, adding: "Sellotape it up."
Mr Holmes says: "I suppose it was a handbagging, it never felt like a handbagging. She was always extremely courteous provided you knew your stuff and did not waffle."
The pictures ended up all over the television news bulletins - Mr Holmes admits they made him look like "a grinning lunatic" but added: "What can you do? You cannot defend the bloody things."
PETER HAYES, FORMER POLITICAL EDITOR OF ITV CENTRAL
Peter Hayes was covering Margaret Thatcher's first appearance in the 2001 election campaign on a sunny day in a packed market square in Northampton.
"It was an incredible atmosphere and I could not move, it was jam-packed, with security everywhere.
"Eventually I managed to get near enough to shove a microphone under her. I knew I only had one chance and it had to be a short, sharp question which she could not refuse to answer.
"I called her Mrs Thatcher deliberately rather than Baroness Thatcher.
"'Mrs Thatcher,' I asked, 'Why are you so frightened of the euro?'
"Her eyes glinted and this small, frail old lady, which she was - she seemed to have shrunk in stature since she was prime minister - she was ablaze within a nanosecond and we saw the old Mrs T of old.
"She started to round on me, saying: 'What a question! I support sterling because it is better. As a broadcaster you should know that.'
"She was jabbing me straight in the chest with her finger and it actually quite hurt, she grabbed the microphone but eventually handed it back, saying: 'Right, out you go' as though we were in a small room rather than a market square.'
"I was quite shocked."
Because a short time afterwards she was advised to give up public speaking, Mr Hayes says it was the last ever public "Maggie handbagging".