Margaret Thatcher’s private papers for 1986, released for the first time today at Churchill Archives Centre, provide unique insights into a year which ultimately proved to date a little over halfway into her Premiership. Of course, no one knew in 1986 just how long she would stay at Downing Street but for the first time the issue of “succession” had been raised.

The Prime Minister’s political troubles are well documented in the release, especially the drama of the Westland crisis and her isolation within Cabinet on a number of key foreign policy issues. The release gives a chance for a fresh look at the major political news stories of 1986 and a chance to understand something of the stress of the Prime Minister’s year.

1986 certainly started badly for Mrs Thatcher with the conclusion of the Westland crisis, a bruising disagreement between Thatcher and Michael Heseltine over a proposed rescue package for the UK’s last helicopter manufacturer – Westland. Heseltine favoured a European-based rescue package, while the PM favoured a US deal. Ultimately, on 9 January, Heseltine stormed out of a Cabinet meeting and announced his resignation.

Unseen until this release, certainly by Heseltine, is the text of a letter Thatcher drafted to him just three weeks before his eventual resignation — but did not send; an ultimatum to either toe the line or give up office. It ends bluntly: “In this situation, no Minister should use his position to promote one commercial option in preference to another – so long as he remains in Government.” The important thing about this letter, of course, is that it was never sent but the ultimate conclusion of Westland was still the resignation of Heseltine. Arguably, the whole dispute was a genuine contest for power in the Conservative Party and one that Thatcher came very close to losing. The explosion of Cabinet arguments into the public arena also anticipated Mrs Thatcher’s final demise as Prime Minister in 1990.

Margaret Thatcher's personal papers held at the Churchill Archives Centre 1986

Also among the papers being released today are those which reveal the scale of opposition for her support of President Reagan’s April bombing of Libya – including that of Norman Tebbit, Conservative Party Chairman and historically one of Thatcher’s key supporters. Tebbit and other leading Party figures such as Deputy PM William Whitelaw, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe and Chancellor Nigel Lawson were among those vocal in their opposition to giving the US administration what they considered to be a blank cheque in prosecuting its bombing campaign against Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya.

Alongside larger worries about national and international affairs, the papers for 1986 also record the concerns of Mrs Thatcher’s advisors when it to plans for her to test drive the new Rover 800 in Downing Street – all in the name of lending a hand to the ailing car manufacturer British Leyland. Officials remembered a previous Rover test drive when the firm had delivered a red car. Officials were also worried that the Prime Minister’s driving skills might not be up to scratch! A quiet rehearsal was arranged at Chequers, with the car towed secretively under cover, while plans for the Downing Street drive were formalised. In the end, perhaps buoyed by her experience at Chequers, Mrs Thatcher not only drove the car along Downing Street, but also reversed it, pulling off the manoeuvre flawlessly in front of the assembled press.

Margaret Thatcher's personal papers held at the Churchill Archives Centre 1986Margaret Thatcher's personal papers to be held at the Churchill Archives Centre 1986

— Andrew Riley, Churchill Archives Centre

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