Conservative Central Office at Smith Square

School for future Tory stars

The “bohemian efficiency” of the unit that has honed the political skills of generations of Conservative big beasts


This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10

In the summer of 1983 a vacancy unexpectedly arose in the Conservative Research Department, and Oliver Letwin, who had worked there during the 1983 general election and was now a member of the Downing Street Policy Unit, asked whether I would be interested in filling it.

I replied that since I had never had anything to do with the Conservative Party and had spent much of the past 18 months in France, so was more than usually out of touch with British politics, I could not be considered a suitable candidate. Letwin insisted, in his usual optimistic way, that none of this mattered, as they just needed someone who could write.

Andrew Gimson and Nicholas Garland

It was true that I had written an unpublished novel, and also that I needed to earn a living. I was 25 years old, and many of my friends seemed to have embarked on serious careers of one kind or another, so I agreed to go for a talk with the Director of the Research Department, Peter Cropper.

I felt extremely nervous and so, it appeared, did he. He was a great expert on economic policy, who had worked closely with Sir Geoffrey Howe, both in opposition,as they helped devise what became known as Thatcherism, and in the Treasury as they strove, under enormous pressure, to put it into effect. But Cropper could not, evidently, discuss economics with me, as I knew nothing about the subject, so he kindly asked me instead (for he gathered I had just been in France) whether I thought it would be beneficial to adopt in London the French cabinet system of government, under which a minister is assisted by a group of political appointees.

On my first morning at CRD, I was shown a chair in which a recent head of the Political Section was said to have seduced colleagues of both sexes

The cabinet system was unfortunately an aspect of French culture to which I had devoted no attention whatever, and about which I could not converse. I can’t remember what else we found to talk about, but Cropper was such a sympathetic man that somehow we got through the meeting. Letwin’s recommendation must have counted for much, for he was a man of high ability whom I had got to know at Trinity College, Cambridge, where we both read history, I in the year below him. In my last year, I had even been taught for a few weeks by him, so he had read some of my work.

The next event was a dinner in some restaurant to get to know John Whittingdale for whom, if appointed, I would be working, and Robin Harris, special adviser to Leon Brittan, who had been made Home Secretary after the Conservative election victory a couple of months earlier on 9 June 1983.

Whittingdale had been on the bus with Thatcher during the campaign, ready with various reference materials to answer any question about policy which might arise, and was now head of the Political Section in CRD, charged with studying the Opposition parties. He concentrated on the Labour Party and the idea was that I would focus on the SDP and the Liberals.

We were having a most enjoyable dinner. Then without warning Harris asked me: “Are you a Conservative?”

Letwin at once protested that this was a quite unfair question, but I ignored him, for it was of course a perfectly reasonable inquiry which had already occurred to me, and about which I wondered what I should say. Harris had just stood as the Conservative parliamentary candidate in Tooting, where he had fallen 2,697 votes short of victory, while I was not even a party member.

Margaret Thatcher Arrives to support Oliver Letwin

“Well I think I have Tory prejudices,” I replied, and perhaps mentioned Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. What strikes me 40 years later is how unideological my three companions were, in the sense that they imposed no tests of orthodoxy on a newcomer. The word “Thatcherite” carries connotations of narrowness, rigidity and exclusivity, but the Thatcherites in their great days were none of those things.

The last hurdle was an interview with Cropper and the two people responsible for the stream of cogent publications produced by the Research Department: the Deputy Director, Tony Greenland, and the Assistant Director, Alistair Cooke (now Lord Lexden). At one point, I said that since it was envisaged that I should study the SDP, I really must at this stage declare an interest.

“I suppose you will say David Owen [the SDP leader] is your godfather,” Cooke said. “As a matter of fact he is,” I replied. The meeting dissolved into laughter, I was appointed at the modest salary of £6,250 a year, and soon afterwards I reported for duty.

◆ ◆ ◆

The Conservative Research Department (CRD) was founded in 1929 by Neville Chamberlain, and revived after the Second World War by Rab Butler, under whom it recruited such stars of the future as Iain Macleod, Reginald Maudling and Enoch Powell. They worked from a house in Old Queen Street, next to the present offices of the Spectator, with views over St James’s Park.

But when the Conservatives returned to office in 1979, CRD was deprived of its building and told to move into the top two floors of Conservative Central Office in Smith Square, a warren of small rooms in a chilly neo-Georgian building. There was a feeling that we had come down in the world, lost our independence, which had lasted for 50 years, and were in danger of being subsumed into the Central Office bureaucracy, for which we harboured an unlimited scorn.

The period immediately before one’s own often seems more glamorous, and from 1974–79, when Chris Patten (now Lord Patten) was Director of CRD, such figures as Michael Portillo, Matthew Parris, Michael Dobbs, Nicholas True (now, as Leader of the House of Lords, in the Cabinet) and Bruce Anderson had worked there, all of whom were still around. Anderson seemed to appear at almost every party. He had already begun the monumental researches, more extensive than those of any journalist still living though exceeded by many now dead, which would enable him to become the Spectator’s drink critic.

On my first morning at CRD, I was shown a chair in which a recent head of the Political Section was said to have seduced colleagues of both sexes. The latitude extended to its staff in matters of personal behaviour seemed to be pretty much unlimited. John Wyndham, who had worked in CRD after the war, observed that it had “a sort of bohemian efficiency”, and this remained the case. In 1978 Patten had admitted in a memo to Thatcher that the bohemianism was “difficult to eradicate without totally changing the nature of the place”.

Greenland, a quiet and sympathetic CRD veteran, asked me to write in the next month a 6,000-word pamphlet about the SDP and the Liberals. Those unhappily yoked parties had suffered a crushing disappointment in the general election, winning 25.4 per cent of the vote, only 2.2 percentage points behind Labour, but gaining a mere 23 seats.

They nevertheless still appeared to matter, and I devoted enormous pains to my draft, coming in early each morning to work on it before anyone else was around, and subscribing to various obscure Liberal organisations in order to read, and quote, the disobliging things they said about the SDP.

The pamphlet duly appeared with no more than trifling changes by Greenland, who was possibly the only person, apart from its author, to read it from start to finish.

At least once a week I would go with Whittingdale to brief ministers before they went on programmes such as Question Time, then in its first and greatest incarnation under Sir Robin Day. It was not difficult, after watching the programme for a few weeks, to predict with a fair degree of certainty what the questions would be.

David Cameron, Ed Llewellyn, Steve Hilton, Rachel Whetstone, Catherine Fall, Ed Vaizey and George Osborne are among CRD’s alumni

Whittingdale would tell the minister what the Labour participant could be expected to say on each topic, and what weaknesses and contradictions there were in the Labour case, and I would do the same for whichever Liberal or Social Democrat was appearing. Questions about the Conservative record since 1979, and the government’s present stance, I generally left to Whittingdale, who was a mine of information and had an acute ear for what could and could not be said. His greatest term of praise was “sound”, as in “so and so is tremendously sound”.

But there came a week when Whittingdale was unable to come to the briefing, and I went alone to offer what help I could to Ian Gow. He was a key figure in Downing Street as Thatcher’s PPS between 1979 and 1983, encouraging her to get to know the parliamentary party, many of whom had only just been elected, and helping her to maintain a harmonious relationship with Sir Geoffrey Howe, the Chancellor, who was a close friend of Gow, and like him a Wykehamist.

Gow had just become Housing Minister. He began by asking me, with his usual elaborate courtesy, if I could remind him of the Government’s trade union reforms. This I was unable to do. After asking me some other question which I could not answer, he wondered if I might be so kind as to go and buy him a copy of the Evening Standard. Yet such was his generosity that he still invited me as well as Whittingdale, whom he already knew and who was a fellow Wykehamist, to a convivial dinner at the Commons after the programme had been made. In 1990 he was murdered by the IRA.

Soon we were on our way to Blackpool for the party conference of October 1983, the first I had attended. The conference was dominated by the question of whether Cecil Parkinson, whom Thatcher had recently made Trade and Industry Secretary, would have to resign because of the revelation of his affair with Sara Keays.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Conservative Party Chairman Cecil Parkinson wave from party headquarters after a Conservative election victory.

The Prime Minister intended if at all possible to keep him, had indeed hoped to make him Foreign Secretary, and to my slight annoyance most of the women who had worked for him in Smith Square, where he had recently served as Party Chairman, also thought he was absolutely wonderful.

In Blackpool it looked as if he was going to pull through until one evening reports arrived from London that The Times had published a statement by Keays which made Parkinson’s position untenable. How thrilling this was for a heedless young researcher, the lobby of the Imperial Hotel thronged with a mass of people avid for the latest news, and then I saw Ann Parkinson, Cecil’s wife, being led away in tears through the side door of the hotel, and realised that for the main figures in the drama it was a tragedy.

It is tempting to be censorious about politicians who have erred and strayed, and to congratulate ourselves on keeping the pure waters of British democracy undefiled. Thatcher was more charitable about the failings of the men who advised her.

Had I wanted to be a politician, CRD would have offered a wonderful training. The standards of drafting became even more exacting during Harris’s directorship from 1985-88. Not long after my brief spell there (I left in March 1984 to join the Spectator), new recruits appeared who profited greatly from the training and early exposure to ministers that they received in CRD.

David Cameron, Ed Llewellyn, Steve Hilton, Rachel Whetstone, Catherine Fall, Ed Vaizey and George Osborne are among CRD’s alumni, and so is the present Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, of whom a former colleague said when I profiled him for ConservativeHome: “He is interested in bohemian ways without being drawn to participation in them. His best friend in the Research Department at the 2005 election was much given to cycling round London, drunk and naked, during the night.”

Cameron himself has recalled: “During my time at CRD the most senior figure of all was Mrs Thatcher. I’ll never forget my first meeting with her. Walking around at an office party, she stopped in front of me and asked: ‘What are the trade figures? Have you seen the trade figures today?’ I had not. She had. I never made the same mistake again.”

Harris, Cameron’s first employer, later said of him: “He has no principled sense of direction; his only sense of direction is upwards.”

Andrew Gimson’s most recent book, Boris Johnson: The Rise and Fall of a Troublemaker at Number 10, is now out in paperback (Simon & Schuster)

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