'I have always hated the Conservative Party,’ Lord Carrington told me towards the end of his life.
‘Nothing made me hate it more than being chairman of it. Individual members, all right. Collective, so awful. Look at it now. Going down the plughole.’
From a man regarded by many as one of the greatest Conservative politicians of the last century, it was an extraordinary admission.
Why would he say something that amounts to political treason in a party that, by and large, adored him? He said it because he had always felt it, and because he left political life in the saddest of circumstances.
The public memory of Lord Carrington is of a trim, agreeable figure in spectacles who did the honourable thing in 1982 by resigning as Foreign Secretary from Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet over the Falklands fiasco.
Lord Carrington (pictured with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1980) said chairing the Conservative Party made him hate it
He had failed to convince his Cabinet colleagues, most particularly the Prime Minister, of the immediate need to resolve the future of the islanders. As a result, Argentina caught Britain unawares when it invaded in April 1982.
Carrington believed he had to resign. In his mind, to assume responsibility for a department meant that when something went wrong, he had also to assume the responsibility for that failure. Though as I shall reveal here, three decades on there is astonishing new evidence that Carrington was not to blame for the debacle.
He became exasperated with being remembered as the last Minister to resign on a ‘point of honour’. He certainly felt he had done so much more for his country.
At the time of his resignation, Carrington was one of the few politicians to have served in every Tory government since, and including, Churchill’s. He was also a war hero – as a young officer in the Grenadier Guards, he won the Military Cross for bravery fighting the Nazis during the Arnhem operation.
Lord Carrington also told Thatcher to quit over the Poll Tax (pictured, a police detain a protester demonstrating against the charge in London, 1990)
The departure of Carrington from British politics was the symbolic exodus of the last generation to be imbued with a natural sense of public service and duty.
He and I became frequent lunch companions about 40 years ago. After ten years I knew we had become friends when postcards signed ‘Peter C’ in his cramped fist simply became ‘Peter’.
When we agreed I should write his biography, he insisted it should never be published in his lifetime. That way, he said, you can write what you like, I shall never have to read it and we can still be friends.
He often apologised for living on and we had an unspoken agreement that I would never ask after his health in case he suspected my motive. By the time of his death in July, aged 99, he had a secret hoard of vignettes: his very private pen-portraits of people, past and present, whom he had known through decades of public life. Not all were flattering, although none was spiteful.
They were, in some ways, the end-of-term reports of a school housemaster, and enlightening about some of the most important people of the age – none more so than Margaret Thatcher.
When Thatcher became leader of the Conservatives in 1975, after beating Ted Heath in a leadership challenge, Carrington seriously believed his political career was at an end since he had been one of Heath’s closest political allies.
When Ted Heath (pictured) lost in a leadership contest with Thatcher, Carrington believed his career to be over
Furthermore, Thatcher was out to change both the party and Britain. She was determined to fight the Tory grandees, of which Carrington was one. She later said: ‘I felt no sympathy for them.’
Carrington recalled: ‘I sometimes thought that she admired nobody from a similar background to hers who had not done as well as her. Equally, she admired nobody from an establishment background, since they were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. She liked those who were good-looking and with sex appeal, though platonic of course.’
But Thatcher needed Carrington because of his considerable influence as an elder statesman.
Despite their wildly different backgrounds – he the privileged only son of a wealthy family, she the daughter of a grocer – Carrington came to admire and ‘quite like’ Thatcher.
She didn’t always make it easy. Carrington recalled a dinner at the start of Thatcher’s premiership when she decided to have all Permanent Secretaries and their wives to dinner at No 10.
He recalled: ‘This was unheard of, never been done before and those involved were extremely gratified. Iona [Carrington’s wife] and I were asked to dinner – all went well until Thatcher rose to speak. She had them in the palm of her hand, but then told them they were not the sort of people who got things done, that she was not going to put up with any obstruction with what she wanted to do, and they must get on with it.’
Even so, Carrington became one of her two most loyal lieutenants (the other being Willie Whitelaw), though he had been surprised to get the job of Foreign Secretary in the first place.
He thought, however, that he had the advantage over Thatcher of knowing about foreign affairs. His whole background, from a small child holidaying in France, speaking French, writing long and researched essays at Eton on foreign affairs and fighting through Europe during the Second World War, had given him an almost perfect grounding in his subject. Thatcher, on the other hand, knew next to nothing.
Carrington said: ‘I think she had hardly ever been outside the country. From my point of view, this was a considerable advantage, for she could hardly contradict me when I told her where Rhodesia was.’
In the early days of working with Thatcher, Carrington believed her most important failing was a total lack of a sense of humour.
In all the time he knew her, he only once made her laugh. When foreign leaders came to see her, she would start speaking immediately and never let anyone, however important, get a word in.
Carrington would pass notes to her saying, for example: ‘He has come 500 miles, don’t you think you could let him say something?’
Thatcher would take no notice.
One day, Chairman Hua of China arrived and Thatcher made the mistake of asking him, as they were about to sit, what he thought of the world situation. Fifty minutes later, Hua was still telling her exactly what he thought. Thatcher was extremely irritated and started tapping the table with her ring – a regular sign that she was displeased. The Chairman droned on.
Carrington was amused by this and passed her a note which read: ‘You’re talking too much as usual.’ Thatcher burst out laughing, much to the puzzlement of her guest.
In Carrington’s opinion, Thatcher’s lack of humour was in part because she was extremely wary of being laughed at. He and some of his colleagues played on this weakness. Carrington, Lord Hailsham, Willie Whitelaw and Christopher Soames would deliberately pass each other notes in Cabinet meetings, knowing full well that Thatcher would be unnerved because she instinctively thought the notes were about her.
CARRINGTON saw a more aggressive side to Thatcher ahead of her first meeting with Ronald Reagan.
She was worried her Foreign Secretary would upset UK-US relations because of his sympathy towards Palestine. Carrington had hardly got into the room when Thatcher went on the attack over his Middle East policy.