Thatcher tore into Major over his handling of the economy

Margaret Thatcher tore into John Major over his handling of the economy, weeks after backing him to succeed her as prime minister, according to newly released official documents.

Margaret Thatcher and John Major
Margaret Thatcher and John Major

In an extraordinary private meeting, she rounded on her erstwhile protege, warning him he was on the verge of a “historic error” which could plunge the country into recession.

The files released by the National Archives in Kew, west London, underline how rapidly relations between the two soured after Mr Major entered No 10 following her shock resignation in November 1990.

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While Mrs Thatcher had previously made clear he was her chosen successor, she quickly came to suspect he wanted to abandon her legacy as he spoke of his desire for a more “compassionate” Conservatism.

She was particularly incensed by his decision to scrap the “poll tax” - her flagship local government reform - even though its deep unpopularity had been a key factor in her downfall.

On Boxing Day 1990, Mr Major wrote to her inviting her to a face-to-face meeting in an attempt to clear the air.

It was an encounter he clearly approached with some trepidation, writing anxiously: “I am a little concerned at some of the press comment on a ‘new style’ as this suggests new policies and I don’t wish to change the drift of policy.”

The meeting took place in Mr Major’s room in the House of Commons on January 3 1991, and Mrs Thatcher wasted no time in making her concerns known, warning that “excessively high” interest rates risked pushing the economy into recession.

She even compared the position to Winston Churchill’s calamitous decision as chancellor in 1925 to return Britain to the gold standard - a move that led to deflation, mass unemployment and the General Strike.

“Mrs Thatcher said conditions on the economy were very tough indeed,” the official minute of the meeting noted. “She believed that there was a danger of repeating Winston Churchill’s historic error.”

Mr Major appears to have been taken aback by her onslaught, retorting the current situation “was not remotely comparable”.

While he wanted to get rates down, “snatching at an interest rate reduction at the first opportunity” would be counter-productive, creating the impression ministers were set on cuts “come what may”.

Mrs Thatcher was not finished, turning to his decision to abandon the poll tax - or community charge as it was officially known - in the face of widespread criticism of rising bills.

“Local authorities would draw the conclusion that it was such a bad tax they could put it up as much as they liked and blame the government,” she fumed.

Her solution was to strip councils of their responsibility for education, leaving them with a much-reduced set of powers and revenues.

The meeting appears to have done much to set the tone of the future relations between the two, with Mrs Thatcher increasingly becoming a thorn in the side of Mr Major - particularly over Europe.

It left ministers anxious to avoid further friction. Discussing plans for the 1992 general election, Conservative Party chairman Chris Patten wrote: “I understand Margaret’s entourage are letting it be known that if she were not invited to the final rally she would be ‘hurt’.

“It may be that inviting her to a rally at the beginning of the campaign, as we are proposing, will get around this difficulty.”

Meanwhile, Whitehall was plunged into chaos by the Chernobyl disaster as the radioactive fall-out started arriving in the UK during a bank holiday weekend, according to newly released official files.

The catastrophic explosion at the Soviet nuclear reactor on April 26 1986 was the world’s worst nuclear accident - releasing radioactive plumes high into the atmosphere.

However it was another week before the first signs of increased radioactivity levels were detected in the UK - just as officials were packing up for the long May bank holiday weekend.

With prime minister Margaret Thatcher out of the country on an official visit to Japan, government files released by the National Archives at Kew suggest the immediate response was little short of shambolic.

Phone lines were overwhelmed, advice issued to calm public fears only inflamed them, while officials were dismayed to discover they did not have a contingency plan for dealing with an incident involving an overseas nuclear facility.

In one moment of pure “farce”, environment minister William Waldegrave mistakenly gave out the telephone number for the Department of the Environment (DoE) drivers’ pool instead of Whitehall’s technical information centre during a radio interview.

Mrs Thatcher complained that the government had given the “appearance of disarray” in her absence, while a scathing post-mortem by the No 10 policy unit concluded that it was only after the bank holiday was over that Whitehall finally gained control.

In his report to the prime minister, John Wybrew, of the policy unit, wrote: “Over the bank holiday weekend, when the fall-out first occurred, you, (foreign secretary) Geoffrey Howe and (No 10 press secretary) Bernard Ingham were away in Tokyo. Whitehall lacked a firm lead.

“Anxious telephone callers inundated Maff (the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries) and seriously hampered communications. Not until after the weekend did DoE and environment ministers firmly take charge of the government’s response.

“Before that, the ill-co-ordinated nature of the information and advice aroused rather than calmed public anxiety.”

Environment secretary Kenneth Baker sought to assure the public the risks were “insignificant”, only for John Dunster, the head of the National Radiological Protection Board, to say the death toll in the UK would run to “tens of people”.

“Both conclusions derived from the the same assumption and analysis. Mr Dunster was quantifying what he regarded as an insignificant risk,” Mr Wybrew noted.

“The next day he had to explain that tens of deaths would arise from cancer over the next 30 to 40 years, during which time millions would die from cancer wholly unconnected with the Chernobyl incident.”

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was warned against inviting disgraced former US president Richard Nixon to Downing Street, according to newly released government files.

Papers released by the National Archives at Kew show diplomats said the White House would be “unhelpfully” surprised if she agreed to receive him.

The warning came in April 1980 - six years after Mr Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal - when Tory MP Jonathan Aitken contacted No 10 on his behalf asking if she would see him during a forthcoming visit to London.

After consulting the British ambassador in Washington, Malcolm Adams at the Foreign Office advised Downing Street that there was “no overriding objection” if Mrs Thatcher wished to meet to him.

He added however: “The ambassador pointed out that Mr Nixon is as much out of touch in the US as he is controversial and he doubts whether the prime minister would learn much from him. In the US, more might be read into a call at No 10 than was intended.

“To judge from our experience when soundings were taken before Mr Nixon’s last visit to Britain the US administration would not presume to advise us how to respond; but the ambassador considers that they, and senior Republicans, would be surprised, and unhelpfully so, if the prime minister received him.”

Two years later however, following a further request by Mr Aitken, Mrs Thatcher did agree to a private appointment to meet the ex-president.

Afterwards a clearly delighted Mr Nixon sent her a telegram congratulating her on her recent “victory” over striking rail workers.

“Your gutsy leadership both domestically and internationally continues to inspire free peoples everywhere,” he wrote.