Why Thatcher's cabinet nearly resigned over use of her Jaguar

With Theresa May's cabinet in turmoil, we look back on the uprising Thatcher quashed - over who received use of a ministerial Jag…

As the country awoke on June 11, 1987, Margaret Thatcher had claimed her third term as Prime Minister; setting a new benchmark in political history. The Falklands victory, amid policies that created numerous new millionaires, brought about a hat trick in landslide elections. In the eyes of her supporters, the country had never been so strong – due in no small part to the Iron Lady’s steadfast will that the British could once again be proud of their stance in Europe.

However, Thatcher’s final tenure was not to be an easy one. From the poll tax to issues surrounding Northern Ireland, the EU and general Conservative disgruntlement, Thatcher’s last governmental cabinet remained well versed on the art of infighting. Yet few issues brought about such sharp political squabbling than the matter of who was entitled to use the fleet of ministerial Jaguars, often in high-specification Daimler V12 form.

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Documents published on December 29, 2017 showcased the jostling privilege and clarification of position on behalf of ministers demanding to be chauffeured in an official Jaguar XJ. Those among the highest offices of British state refused to take anything less – mainly because the next vehicle-in-line from the car pool was a Rover 827.

For those bemused by the self-inflicted industrial crisis, the indignity would have been unbearable en route to a luncheon at Chequers. A Rover? Ruddy nora...

In fact, one of the various released Downing Street files proves that Chancellor Nigel Lawson and Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe personally approached Thatcher in 1989 to plead their cases. They couldn’t bear the shame of being seen in Rover's new saloon. Shameful, seeing as they boasted their worth when proceedings boiled down to ‘flying the flag’.

Perhaps highlighting the class warfare burning within Thatcher’s cabinet, her policy of providing only herself and the Defence, Foreign, Home and Northern Ireland Secretaries with a Jag caused uproar behind closed doors.

Anyone else of governmental title was allocated a top-spec Rover 827, at this point the fresh-faced flagship model from Britain’s recovering marque. Austin and Morris were gone, swallowed up by British Leyland and consigned to automotive history, yet Rover bristled with the image of failure. Politicians certainly refused to assist in reviving the age-old marque's fortunes. 

Some lowered themselves to churning out mundane excuses to avoid custodianship of an 827. Some pleaded for something more grand in order to keep up appearances, while others claimed that the 827’s lack of legroom cut off their blood circulation. And you thought our ministers couldn’t ‘feel’...

The minor scandal was first brought to Thatcher’s attention after her principal private secretary Andrew Turnbull left a letter on her desk, warning: ‘The spectacle of ministers squabbling over cars is distasteful.’

Not usually one to heed such nonsense lightly, Thatcher strangely indulged in parliamentary vanity by responding with a memo stating: ‘What is the price difference? If none, I see no problem.’

Thatcher’s nonchalant attitude likely stems from a backlog of cabinet grumbles. After all, it was far more important to keep ministers on-side rather than allowing them to develop resentment over the badging on their vehicle. Not that it would save her in the long run.

An example is the begging assumed by Sir Geoffrey Howe, who contested to Downing Street with a dossier of evidence on the preferential automotive treatment given to ministers other than himself. Mind you, the bitter taste from leaving his role as Foreign Secretary in September 1989 may also have had something to do with it.

Making statements usually reserved for the childish baiting undertaken in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister’s aides folded under pressure and proclaimed that Sir Geoffrey held a number of precedents. In other words – there would probably be a small scandal if Howe’s evidence leaked out to the press.

Sir Geoffrey’s documentation proved that Thatcher had gifted Chancellor Nigel Lawson a chauffeur-driven XJ12 the previous year ‘because of his seniority’, even if it was a hand-me-down from the Speaker of the Commons.

‘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,’ Howe lamented.

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.’

The squabble took a different turn when Lawson requested a new XJ40 after his second-hand Jaguar blew up in spectacular fashion and couldn’t economically be repaired. The expenses claim saw Lawson’s Jag saloon valued at £21,000 (roughly £58,000 when adjusted for contemporary inflation), rather than suffer the dishonour of a £16,300 Rover 827 (£38,800).

Press reports of Lawson being stripped of his XJ would have proven unhelpful during a time where the Chancellor’s ego was already bruised, Thatcher having taken away his grace-and-favour country house, Dorneywood, in favour of Sir Geoffrey. Apparently, Howe’s Jag looked ‘splendid’ outside the Buckinghamshire 18th-century house.

Andrew Turnbull’s diary states that the Chancellor favoured a new Jaguar over the threatened press leak, ‘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.’

Going against form, Thatcher acceded to the request, yet the squabbling continued. When certain members of Parliament were refused their Jaguar upon the infamous Thatcher brow being lowered, they simply bought their own. Trade minister Alan Clark went against the advice from Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong, who felt ‘that he should be promoting the [Austin] Montego as other ministers of state were doing.’

In essence, the whole situation outlined just how dysfunctional Thatcher’s final team of Ministers had become. The entire shallow and pedantic shebang remained masked by a brewing leadership bid led by unruly Conservative backbenchers.

The concept that Thatcher helped launch the Rover 800-series would have proven too much to bear for those supporting her downfall. Back on launch day, the greatest cause for concern was the Prime Minister’s car control as, when sliding into the pilot’s seat in front of the world’s press, it transpired that she hadn’t actually driven in nearly a decade. At least, not since she helped assist with press events for the Austin Maestro's unveiling. How that felt like small fry in comparison.

Ironically, the Jaguar model so favoured by Thatcher’s cabinet was also the last vehicle employed for her Prime Ministerial duties – driving her and husband Denis out of Downing Street upon her forced resignation on the evening of November 27, 1990.

Nowadays, the forces at Westminster employ all manner of vehicles, from armoured Range Rovers to a fleet of Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and BMW saloons. As Rover fell by the wayside in 2005, and with contemporary vanity at an all-time high, it remains to be seen quite what vehicles ministers now rebuke.

However, it should be noted that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II found the Rover 800 more than acceptable, driving her personal one on many occasions.

Pictures courtesy of Getty Images

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