From Europe to the poll tax, the senior members of Margaret Thatcher’s last government were well versed in the arts of infighting. But few issues seem to have brought out the political sharp elbows more effectively than the matter of who was allowed a ministerial Jag.
Previously unpublished documents lay bare the jostling for position among the holders of the highest offices of state for the right to be chauffeured in an official Jaguar – and avoid the indignity of being transported in a Rover.
A Downing Street file reveals how some of the most senior members of Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet in 1989, among them Chancellor Nigel Lawson and then Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe, privately approached Downing Street pleading their cases to be driven about in a stately Jaguar.
Protocol dictated that, with the exception of the Prime Minister and the Home, Foreign, Defence and Northern Ireland Secretaries (who all received Jaguars), all Cabinet ministers were to be allocated a Rover 827 – the then recently-unveiled pride of the ill-fated British car manufacturer’s range.
But a number of ministers, including Tory big beast William Whitelaw, deftly deployed their political creativity – from pleas on behalf of the eminence of their office to a lack of leg room in the spurned Rovers – to ensure they obtained the limo of their choice.
When Sir Geoffrey Howe was moved from Foreign Secretary in September 1989, he made an appeal to Mrs Thatcher to be allowed to keep his Jaguar.
Downing Street aides advised the Prime Minister that there had been a number of precedents in favour of Sir Geoffrey, including the fact that she had agreed the previous year that “because of his seniority” Chancellor Nigel Lawson should be allowed a hand-me-down Jag previous used by the Speaker of the Commons.
The memo continued: “Before that you allowed the Secretary of State for Wales to have a Jaguar because it would make the regular journeys by road between London and Cardiff more comfortable – he had been ill.
“Lord Whitelaw as Lord President also had a Jaguar. Looking back at the files it seems that he was also given a Jaguar on grounds of comfort – the standard Rover was judged to have been a little too small for him, particularly on the long run to Cumbria.”
Mrs Thatcher appears to have been willing to indulge such ministerial vanity, noting on the memo: “What is the price difference? If none, I see no problem.”
After his second-hand Jaguar terminally broke down, Mr Lawson requested a new model costing £21,000 rather than be bumped down to a £16,300 Rover. The issue came at a delicate time for the Chancellor’s ego after Mrs Thatcher had decided to take away his grace-and-favour country house, Dorneywood, and give it to Sir Geoffrey.
Mrs Thatcher’s private secretary, Andrew Turnbull, said he found the spectacle of ministers squabbling over cars “distasteful” but accepted press reports suggesting that Mr Lawson was now to lose his Jaguar were unhelpful.
Mr Turnbull noted that the Chancellor “naturally” favoured the option of a new Jaguar “primarily on grounds of comfort and status but also because he would like to avoid the ‘first she took away his country house and then his car’ story.”
Mrs Thatcher duly acceded to the request but other ministers were willing to take their antipathy towards Rover even further.
Trade minister Alan Clark, the independently wealthy diarist and controversialist, insisted that he supply his own Jaguar.
One memo notes: “This was against advice from [Cabinet Secretary] Sir Robert Armstrong who felt that he should be promoting the [Rover] Montego as other ministers of state were doing.”