Prime Minister’s Office files (PREM)

In this release

The Westland crisis

By late 1985 the Westland Helicopter Company was in danger of passing into receivership. Michael Heseltine, Secretary of State for Defence, favoured a bid from a European consortium; Leon Brittan, the Trade and Industry Secretary, and Mrs Thatcher favoured leaving the decision to the Board of Westland, which was also considering a bid from the American company Sikorsky.

On 7 January a confidential letter from Patrick Mayhew, Solicitor General, to Heseltine was leaked to the press. At a Cabinet meeting on 9 January 1986, the Prime Minister announced that all future statements about Westland must be cleared, in advance, through the Cabinet Office. Following discussion, Heseltine stated that he could not accept this decision and left the Cabinet. He walked out of No. 10 and told a journalist outside that he had resigned.

PREM 19/1415 Westland Helicopters: part 1a and PREM 19/1416 Westland Helicopters: part 1B, were released on 30 December 2014.

Aerospace: Westland Helicopters part 2

Catalogue reference: PREM 19/1667
Date range: 28 December 1985 – 10 January 1986

The file begins with a briefing for the Prime Minister, dated 10 January 1986, by Stephen Sherbourne (Political Secretary) following Michael Heseltine’s resignation. There are various briefing and speaking notes for Thatcher, analysing Heseltine’s arguments over Westland and providing counter-arguments, before and after the Cabinet Meeting of 9 January 1986 during which he resigned.

The file also contains correspondence between the Prime Minister and Sir John Cuckney, Chairman of Westland. On 6 January Charles Powell, Private Secretary for Overseas Affairs, sent a ‘Fact Sheet’ to Thatcher ‘to be used with some discretion’. On 10 January 1986 Powell wrote to the Prime Minister: ‘I attach some “knocking copy” on Mr Heseltine’s statement’. Powell stated that the copy ‘is deliberately cast in rather polemical terms’ though he had ‘cleared the facts’ with the relevant departments. It emerged that Heseltine sent a telegram (Westland-related) as Defence Secretary to international contacts after resigning. Len Appleyard (Private Secretary, Foreign and Commonwealth Office) wrote that the FCO were ‘v.cross’ about this.

On 7 January 1986, Heseltine wrote to Sir Michael Havers, QC, MP, and asked for ‘your formal permission to take proceedings against The Sun newspaper for their front page today (attached)’. The headline of this article was ‘You Liar! Tarzan gets rocket from top law man’. Havers replied that he had no objection to Heseltine proceeding with suing The Sun (the action was not pursued).

The background to the leaked letter is on the file. On 3 January Heseltine wrote to David Horne of Lloyds Merchant Bank, which was acting for the European bid. On 6 January, Patrick Mayhew, the Solicitor General, wrote to Heseltine (this letter was the source of The Sun’s story). There is a further letter to Heseltine from Mayhew on 7 January. This file also contains copies of letters from Paddy Ashdown MP to the Prime Minister.

Aerospace: Westland Helicopters part 3

Catalogue reference: PREM 19/1668
Date range: 12 January 1986 – 24 January 1986

The file begins with a draft statement for the Prime Minister for possible use in the House of Commons. It also contains many papers concerning a meeting held between Leon Brittan and Sir Raymond Lygo, the Managing Director of British Aerospace (BAe) on 8 January. Heseltine had complained that Brittan had warned Lygo to cut his company’s link with the European consortium. Brittan denied this in a House of Commons debate on 13 January, but Sir Austin Pearce (Chairman of BAe) had a different recollection of what was said at the meeting. Brittan and Lygo managed to clear up the ‘misunderstanding’ by 17 January.

An anonymous briefing note takes issue with Heseltine’s press conference statement on a point by point basis, and includes the comment that ‘on his [Heseltine’s] own record this is double-dealing’. The Trade and Industry Committee began to carry out an inquiry, and the Defence Committee also began to investigate the defence implications for the future of Westland plc.

The file contains Leon Brittan’s resignation letter on 24 January, and the Prime Minister’s reply. The file also contains notes for Mrs Thatcher’s preparation for a Parliamentary debate, called by Labour, about Westland on 27 January.  Stephen Sherbourne wrote to Nigel Wicks on 24 January 1986:

‘I am thinking about the danger that certain questions might still be unanswered after Monday’s debate. We must avoid that if possible – it will only prolong the agony.’

Aerospace: Westland Helicopters part 4

Catalogue reference: PREM 19/1669
Date range: 25 January 1986 – 28 February 1986

This file contains a note for the record dated 25 January 1986 of a phone conversation between the Prime Minister and Ronald Reagan which took place that day:

‘The President said he thought the Prime Minister would like to hear a friendly voice. He was furious that anyone had the gall to challenger her integrity. He wanted her to know that “out here in the colonies” she had a friend. He urged the Prime Minister to go out and do her darndest. The Prime Minister thanked the President very much for his kind thought in telephoning. It was a difficult moment but she intended to put her head down and battle through.’

On 25 January, Stephen Sherbourne wrote to Nigel Wicks: ‘it is also important that you and CDP [Charles Powell] go through the chronology very precisely with the PM “Brian Walden” style’. The file contains Thatcher’s preparation for the House of Commons debate on 27 January, with advice and input for the Prime Minister’s draft speech. It focuses on the circumstances surrounding the disclosure of the Solicitor-General’s letter of 6 January, and the detail of Mrs Thatcher’s statements to Parliament.

On 27 January 1986 Bernard Ingham wrote: ‘I did not advocate the leaking of the Solicitor-General’s letter’. There is a list of questions about the affair asked by the press on Monday 27 January. Sir Robert Armstrong addressed the question of whether certain witnesses should attend Select Committee hearings. Armstrong wrote to the prime minister: ‘I have absolutely no desire to appear before any of the Select Committees investigating the Westland Affair; but, if it were thought to be the only possible way of getting out of a summons to Mr Powell and Mr Ingham, I should be prepared to accept invitations to attend’. Armstrong did give evidence to the Defence Committee on 5 February; his evidence, which was given in public and later published, is on the file.

On 10 February Nigel Wicks wrote a ‘Note for the Record’ regarding a phone call received from Leon Brittan: ‘LB said his reading of the transcript of evidence over the weekend suggested that Sir Robert had given a flagrant steer which he could not accept’ (in his evidence, Armstrong stated: ‘I am clear that the authority for disclosure [of the Solicitor-General’s letter of 6 January] was given by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry’). On 25 February it was noted that Armstrong was to be recalled by the Defence Select Committee to be asked some further questions.

Aerospace: Westland Helicopters part 5

Catalogue reference: PREM 19/1670
Date range: 3 March 1986 – 31 July 1986

Robert Armstrong submitted a memo in response to the Defence Select Committee’s questions. The Committee sent further questions to him. Armstrong commented: ‘my inquiry was conducted in confidence, and the report was submitted in confidence, and I intend to preserve that confidence… I do not wish to name or identify individual officials’.

Armstrong wrote to Sir Brian Hayes, Permanent Secretary, DTI on 7 March 1986: ‘I understand that a number of books of “instant history” are being written about the Westland affair’. In view of the ‘highly charged circumstances’ he did not want officials to cooperate or give interviews to authors.

Armstrong’s further evidence to the Select Committee on 5 March was largely put into the public domain. There are questions about an honour for entreprenuer Alan Bristow.

Aerospace: Westland Helicopters part 6

Catalogue reference: PREM 19/1671
Date range: 1 August 1986 – 19 November 1986

In a letter to Mrs Thatcher from 1 August 1986, Ken Stowe (Permanent Secretary, DHSS) praises Robert Armstrong. In a handwritten reply, the Prime Minister is in fulsome agreement: ‘Robert is one of the finest public servants we have ever had’.

There is a great deal of material concerning the Government’s response to the Defence Committee’s two Westland Reports. There is ministerial correspondence about the problems facing the Westland company, like the possibility of 2,500 staff losing their jobs.

There are many amendments and annotations by the Prime Minister on draft Government responses to the reports, and preparation for a Parliamentary debate on 29 October 1986 including a draft speech to be made by George Younger, the Secretary of State for Defence. An Observer headline of 19 October 86 reads: ‘Thatcher defies new Westland attack’.

Prime Minister

Downing Street: Organisation and function of the Policy Unit; relations with the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS); access to Papers by members of the Prime Minister’s Policy unit; Part 1

Catalogue reference: PREM 19/2076

The key aim of the Number 10 Policy Unit is to provide policy analysis, focused on domestic policy.

This file is largely concerned with questions of access to papers by members of the unit and the working arrangements. The file contains a 27 page memo, circa 1986, about the role and history of the unit written by David Willetts.


Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, July 1986

Catalogue reference: PREM 19/1978
Date range: 11 August 1985 – 19 December 1986

This file discusses the arrangements for staging the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1986, including the role played by Robert Maxwell. In agreeing to stage the Games, the Government stipulated that no taxpayers’ money would be forthcoming and that the organisers should look for sponsorship as the main source of funding.

To signal their opposition to apartheid in South Africa the majority of Commonwealth nations boycotted  the Games. The boycott deterred sponsors with the result that only £4 million of the expected £12 million had been raised. To plug the gap, it was suggested that the Prime Minister might wish to get involved. In a memo dated 7 August 1985, the Cabinet Office stated that it had ‘reservations’ and considered the PM’s involvement ‘slightly demeaning’. The Prime Minister’s handwritten note on this memo was more forthright: ‘I am not going to sign letters asking for money’.

To avert a financial crisis, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Malcolm Rifkind, wrote to his Cabinet colleagues on 12 September 1986 requesting government assistance. He was concerned that as a result of the boycott, the Games faced a ‘Doomsday’ scenario. The government stood firm with Thatcher adamant that no government money would be forthcoming. In an attempt to save the Games financially and avoid ‘the national humiliation’ that liquidation would bring to both Scotland and the UK, Robert Maxwell offered to accept the ‘onerous task’ of raising private contributions. The file contains a series of letters and correspondence between Maxwell and the Prime Minister/Downing Street on financial assistance.

Government Machinery and Civil Service

Review of the Lobby system

Catalogue reference: PREM 19/2201
Date range: 27 October 1981 – 10 July 1987

The Parliamentary Lobby system is explained: the Parliamentary Lobby journalists normally come to No. 10 at 11 am in the morning, and in the afternoon the Chief Press Secretary would also make himself available for this group at 4 pm in the House of Commons. The Lobby system ‘operates mainly, but not exclusively on an unattributable basis’, hence the use of phrases such as ‘Government sources’, ‘Whitehall sources’.

There were calls from some of the press to reform the lobby and to have ‘on the record’ briefings. This file contains several memos by Bernard Ingham, the Chief Press Secretary for No. 10, discussing problematic issues arising from the Lobby, and possible remedies, but each time these matters are discussed within government, the verdict is that it is difficult to see how the Lobby system can be successfully altered, and, ultimately, Ingham puts forward a robust defence of the Lobby system. Around September 1986, the Guardian and The Independent signalled that, in effect, they would no longer give anonymity to Ingham, by using more specific phrases for sources such as ‘a Downing Street spokesman’. This led to some heated (written) exchanges between Ingham and Peter Preston, Editor of The Guardian, in February 1987.

Files concerning visits to the UK and relations with other countries

Human rights and the position of dissidents in the Soviet Union: policy towards the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE); part 1

Catalogue reference: PREM 19/1973
Date range: May 1980-May 1985

This file mainly deals with human rights and the treatment of dissidents in the Soviet Union before, during and after the Madrid CSCE Review Meeting (11 November 1980 – 9 September 1983), within the frame of ‘the setback to détente occasioned by Soviet actions both in the area of human rights and human contacts in Afghanistan’.

It includes details of particular dissidents and prisoners, notably Raoul Wallenberg (and his potential nomination in absentia for the 1981 Nobel Peace Prize), and physicist Yuri Orlov. It also contains a message to Margaret Thatcher from President Reagan dated 2 July 1983 expressing concerns about the anti-Semitic campaign conducted in the USSR.

UK/Romania relations; Northern Engineering Industries Ltd bid for supply of turbine generator; deportation of Stancu Papusoiu; part 1

Catalogue reference: PREM 19/1923
Date range: 27 November 1979 – 30 June 1986

This file begins with discussion of a bid by Northern Engineering Industries to supply turbines and electricity generating plant to nuclear reactors being built in Romania. There is correspondence between Thatcher and Ceausescu relating to the bid, which ended up being unsuccessful. The file contains detailed reports from Julian Amery on visits to Romania and meetings with senior figures including Ceausescu in October 1980 and January 1983. Julian Avery’s note to Margaret Thatcher about his visit dated 28 January 1983, includes an amusing post-script about learning from their guide at the Foreign Ministry that the ‘role of Vlad Dracul (Dracula) had been reassessed “positively” by a panel of Marxist historians. He was, apparently, a very good administrator if somewhat excessive in his use of impaling to punish wrongdoers […]’.

One of the key issues discussed in this and in other correspondence was Romanian views on the deployment of intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe, and the disarmament discussions between the Soviet Union and the United States. Contained within the file are views of Robert Maxwell on SS 20 missiles and his attempts to meet with the Prime Minister. There is discussion of the deportation of Stancu Papusoiu from Britain to Romania in March 1983, and concerns more broadly about refugee policy regarding the Eastern bloc. The file closes with a series of press releases regarding the 1984 Romanian Communist Party Congress and a series of wartime anniversaries.

Social services

Assistance with fuel costs; alternative to electricity discount scheme; home insulation scheme; severe weather payments; part 1

Catalogue reference: PREM 19/1962
Date range: 21 May 1979 – 26 February 1986

The Conservative Government begins to review the electricity discount scheme, aimed at helping the poor with their fuel costs. John Biffen at the Treasury does not want to provide the scheme in the winter of 1979 ‘unless unforeseen circumstances arise’. There are several criticisms of the scheme – it is described as ‘complicated and difficult for claimants to understand’. Mrs Thatcher agreed that the scheme should be ended – but signaled that she is open to an alternative winter fuel scheme (handwritten comment on a letter dated 27 July 1979).  An alternative scheme is duly implemented.