|The late Gerald Moggridge|
Gerald Moggridge, a Downing Street press officer at the time, describes the drama that was played out within No.10, from Friday 1 March 1974 (the day after polling day) until its conclusion late in the evening of Monday 4 March 1974.
Most civil servants would think themselves fortunate to serve at No. 10 during a general election. I was lucky enough to witness the beginning and the outcome of not one, but two general elections during my five years there. The first of them was the General Election of 28 February 1974. It brought about an unexpectedly tight result between the two major parties and produced a situation that had all the same ingredients that are now preoccupying everyone at the end of the May 2010 general election.
There is no escaping the drama and, in a real sense, the potential for tragedy that faces a Prime Minister in this position. Whoever you are in No.10, and whatever your politics and the politics of the serving Prime Minister, you feel considerable sympathy and sadness for the person who may soon be leaving by that famous front door for the last time. I write with experience that, whatever your politics and whatever the Prime Minister’s politics, you will have developed an allegiance to and an affection for the man (or woman) who, as the song says and the record shows - took the blows and did it their way. Yes, there were to be tears in Downing Street on the evening of 4 March 1974.
But before that there were to be three days of high political tension and drama as Edward Heath and his party sought to reach some kind of an agreement with the Liberal Party to see if together they could form “an administration which could carry on the business of government.” Throughout the weekend the press office was directly involved in both announcing and keeping an accurate record of the ebbs and flows of those negotiations . This we did through the series of ”press office bulletins” (“pobs”) that had been part of the machinery of the Downing Street press office operation for some years. The first ”pob” of this crisis - No. 89/4 dated Friday 1 March - confirmed that the PM had arrived at No. 10 (from Sidcup) at 0300 hours that morning and had watched the election results on television for a little while before going to bed. He had breakfast at 0930 and then held a series of ad hoc meetings with various ministers. A later ”pob” dealt with a story that Arthur Hawkey of the London Evening Standard had picked up to the effect that the PM’s doctor had called in at No.10 that morning. We confirmed that this was true, but that the doctor was not called in by the PM. He just looked in. (He - Dr Brian Warren - was a personal friend of Edward Heath). We later denied a BBC report that the Prime Minister was to hold a press conference at 1500 hours that day.
Then came the major announcements of the day. At 1940 hours we told the Press Association and the lobby correspondents that the PM had chaired a meeting of the cabinet and that “The Queen has granted the Prime Minister’s request to her to grant him an audience at 1945 hours so that he can report on the current political situation”. In the feverish atmosphere that was now developing every word we uttered triggered a host of supplementary questions. The main one was ”Is the PM going to the Palace to submit his resignation?” The answer to that was a blunt ”No”. The following day - Saturday 2 March - the pace quickened when the PM had his first meeting with the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe. Any guidance? ”No commitment was entered into on either side. The atmosphere was friendly and easy”. Full stop. More speculation followed on Sunday 3 March when we announced that there would be a meeting of Ministers in No.10 that evening, and a further meeting with Jeremy Thorpe.
The last act. Sunday 3 March saw a further meeting of Ministers and, at 2300 hours, what was to be the PM’s final meeting with Mr Thorpe. Monday 4 March dawned. There was now a tangible sense of events moving inexorably, to a conclusion - as in a Greek tragedy. We arrived in the press office early that morning, to be ready to announce a meeting of the cabinet at 1000 hours. The meeting lasted two hours. Soon afterwards the lobby were reporting that a meeting of the Liberal Party was taking place in the House of Commons. Later we confirmed that the Prime Minister had received a letter from Mr Thorpe together with a copy of a statement issued by the Liberals. There was a further meeting of the cabinet. It ended at 1720 hours.
The stage was now set for the last act in the drama. Three people had been selected to play supporting roles. In alphabetical order they were: a private secretary, Robin Butler**, a chief press secretary, Robin Haydon, and a chief press officer, me. The script required Robin Butler and Robin Haydon to go across the road to the House of Commons and, with the prior agreement of John Egan, the chairman of the lobby, to position themselves in or near the lobby room there. They would have with them a press statement and copies of the correspondence between Mr Heath and Mr Thorpe. From there Robin Butler would telephone my number in the press office at 1815 hours. He and I would then keep the line open until the moment I could confirm - by my view from the open door of the press office through to the hallway - that the Prime Minister had arrived at the front hall and was, literally, “on his way out of No. 10”. On that signal, he and Robin Haydon would release the press material to the lobby correspondents, and brief them on its contents.
And so it was that, at 1820 hours on Monday 4 March 1974, it was announced that Edward Heath’s period at No.10 had ended. My last act for the Prime Minister, after I had passed that telephone message to Robin Butler, was to record Mr Heath’s departure in the press office bulletin for that day. (For the record it was “pob” No. 92/4). It bore my initials and gave the text of the press notice which, in nineteen words, formally brought to an end the premiership of Edward Heath. It read: ”The Prime Minister has sought an audience of Her Majesty in order to tender the resignation of the Government”.
** Now Lord Butler of Brockwell.