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Nigel Fletcher is an adviser in the Conservative Research Department
and a Councillor in the London Borough of Greenwich.  This article is
adapted from his ongoing research for a doctoral thesis on the role of
the Opposition in Britain.

The Leader of the Opposition and the Conservative Shadow Cabinet sat around the table in their meeting room, posed for a group photograph.  With two years to go before a General Election, they faced a former Labour Chancellor who had taken over as Prime Minister from a younger and more charismatic predecessor.  After the cancellation of an expected General Election, Labour was set for eventual defeat at the hands of a resurgent Conservative Party and its dynamic leader.

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That Leader was Margaret Thatcher, and the Prime Minister, James Callaghan.  It was 1977, but the parallels with David Cameron and Gordon Brown today are striking.  So on Monday of this week, thirty years on, I watched as Lady Thatcher sat with David Cameron in the Shadow Cabinet Room, where she planned her Government, and where he now plans his. 

The event was the launch of an exhibition I have put together in conjunction with the Parliamentary Archives, entitled ‘Government’s Waiting Room.’  It marks the contribution the Shadow Cabinet’s premises have made to recent Parliamentary history, and is drawn from my wider research for a doctoral thesis on the role of the Opposition. If the Shadow Cabinet is a Government-in-waiting, my argument runs, its offices are the most significant waiting-rooms in Britain.  They matter because, as Winston Churchill said in reference to the Palace of Westminster, ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.’  Well, that’s my excuse – in truth, having worked in and around the Shadow Cabinet block over the years, its history intrigued me.

That curiosity led me, after several months of research, to organise
the reception in the Shadow Cabinet Room on Monday.  With the exception
of John Major (who was absent abroad) we were joined by all the other
Conservative Leaders to have used the room since: William Hague, Iain
Duncan Smith, Michael Howard, and of course David Cameron, who escorted
Lady Thatcher to the event after their private talks in his office.
Also in attendance were a number of surviving members of the 1970s
Shadow Cabinet –Teddy Taylor, Norman Fowler and Tom King. 

It was a very special evening, with many memories shared.  Lady
Thatcher herself was on top form, and no-one who heard her take control
of the photocall at the Shadow Cabinet table can doubt she still has a
commanding presence.  It was that same determination which secured her
the use of the current Shadow Cabinet Room in 1976 and ensured that in
the thirty-one years since, it has been at the heart of politics at
Westminster as the designated home of the Opposition. 

When Mrs Thatcher took over as Leader of the Opposition in 1975 she was
far from impressed by the facilities she found.  The Leader’s Room
doubled as the Shadow Cabinet meeting room, and she recalls in her
memoirs that there ‘was not enough space, and as summer approached it
all became very hot and airless.’  The inadequacy of the facilities was
underlined by the fact her secretaries had to sit on the floor in the
main room to sort the huge pile of correspondence she received. 

She did, however, attempt to make her surroundings more bearable, as a
journalist who interviewed her there in May 1975 reported:

"Margaret
Thatcher has persuaded the Department of the Environment to embellish
the Leader of the Opposition’s room with a couple of cloth-covered
settees and an armchair, a pink-shaded brass lamp and a chromium and
glass table.  There should be some impressionist prints coming.  The
plates on the mantel-piece are her own.  Only half the bulbs in the
chandelier light up, which has her snapping switches in mild
exasperation."

Her office routine made the inadequacies of her office more
troublesome.  In the same interview she revealed that she was normally
in her office by 9.30am and stayed at least until the House of Commons
rose for the night, frequently much later:

‘By the time I’ve been
writing a speech at three o’clock in the morning, my hair is looking
dishevelled.  I haven’t even got a mirror in this room, I must get
one.  You look in the glass of a bookcase or something, but you make
up before you go out in the morning, you put on something reasonably
tidy and you hope it remains reasonably tidy.’

The job of solving the problem of lack of space fell to Mrs Thatcher’s
head of office and close confidante, Airey Neave MP, who discussed it
with the Government.   When the request was reported to him, Prime
Minister Harold Wilson agreed that ‘parliamentary accommodation is
inadequate but that the solution for that must be found within the
parliamentary setting.’ 

Financial pressures meant that little progress was made at first, but
the following year, with new Prime Minister James Callaghan in Downing
Street, Airey Neave approached the new Leader of the House, Michael
Foot, to ask if there was any possibility of the Opposition taking over
some of the accommodation in the official Serjeant at Arms’
residence, off Speaker’s Court.  The Serjeant was retiring, and his
successor had made it known that he was content to remain in his
existing flat as long as provision were made for his Deputy.  After
checking with the Department of the Environment and Number 10, Michael
Foot wrote to Airey Neave to tell him ‘we are content for the
Opposition to move during the Recess into that part of the Serjeant’s
former residence that is not being converted for the use of the Deputy
Serjeant… I am glad to note that you do not want the move to cost a
great deal, and I hope that agreement can soon be reached on any
expenditure that may be necessary.’

Neave had indeed been at pains to stress the lack of spending desired,
noting that although the decorations were ‘mostly sub-standard and are
due to be replaced under normal maintenance’ it would ‘be wrong in our
view to spend money on them at the present time.  A thorough cleaning
throughout, together with the rearrangement of the furniture, is all
that we feel would now be justified.’   He requested extra telephones,
annunciators (Parliamentary information screens) and a division bell,
but added ‘all of this would have been needed to whatever House
purposes the rooms were allocated.’  The careful display of frugality,
and its commitment to paper, demonstrates the sensitivity of a
politician at a time of national restraint, as well as Mrs Thatcher’s
own instincts on good housekeeping.

When the order to begin work filtered down to the Department of the
Environment, an official there noted the instruction for a minimal
amount of work to be carried out, but pointed out that the new Shadow
Cabinet room ‘can be very cold in winter’, and asked if anything needed
to be done about this, or whether ‘this been accepted as well.’  She
also added sceptically ‘I am personally very doubtful that Mrs Thatcher
will stand the present very heavy ‘dining room’ decoration for long.’

The move to the new premises is recorded with a short sentence on the
Shadow Cabinet agenda of 13th October 1976, the first meeting back
after the Parliamentary recess.   Below the list of items such as
‘British Transport Locks (Felixstowe) Bill’ is the note ‘Please note
that Mrs Thatcher’s new office is where the Serjeant at Arms’ office
used to be, [past] the Prime Minister’s office.’ Mrs Thatcher chaired
the meeting from a seat in the middle of the long side of the table,
facing the window.  This configuration mirrored that of the Cabinet
Room in Number 10 Downing Street, no doubt intentionally, whilst a
portrait of Sir Winston Churchill gazed down from the wall at the
weekly meetings.

From this room, and her office across the corridor, Mrs Thatcher held
court for the duration of her period as Leader of the Opposition.  She
both worked and entertained there during the week when the House was
sitting, receiving visitors including Ronald Reagan, who came to see
her there whilst still Governor of California in November 1978.  She
certainly made herself at home, as one of her staff recalled.  Matthew
Parris, who worked in her correspondence unit, recalls an occasion just
before a Shadow Cabinet meeting when he walked into the Shadow Cabinet
Room to find the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition standing on a
wobbling chair in stockinged feet, running her finger along the top of
an oil painting.  ‘It’s the way a woman knows whether a room’s been
cleaned properly’, she told him.

In the years that followed Mrs Thatcher’s move to Downing Street, the
Shadow Cabinet Room continued to see its share of political drama and
farce.  Under Neil Kinnock, Welsh trade union banners adorned the
walls, whilst there were reports that Sue Nye, his diary secretary (who
now controls access to Prime Minister Gordon Brown) used to perform
acrobatic somersaults as her party piece after receptions there.

Just before the 1992 General Election, the House authorities discussed
with the Opposition the replacement of the curtains, and reportedly
asked Kinnock’s office to avoid the existing colour, red, to avoid any
embarrassment if the Conservatives moved in after polling day. In the
end, they decided on gold, which they remain to this day.  When Kinnock
lost the election, he chose this room for his valedictory press
statement, flanked by his wife and closest personal staff, with the
South Wales area NUM banner and a display of red roses behind him.

John Smith signalled a break with his predecessor by replacing the
banner on the wall with a painting showing ‘a rainswept Palace of
Westminster across a grey, storm-tossed Thames’ for the duration of his
leadership.  After Smith’s death, Tony Blair made frequent use of the
room, and placed a bronze figure of Clement Attlee on the mantelpiece,
along with a stack of books including the New Testament.  The People
newspaper reported that in September 1996 Blair chose the ‘deserted
Shadow Cabinet room… where New Labour was born’ to prepare his final
party conference speech before the General Election.  The paper
described a romantic vision of the Prime Minister-in-waiting ‘alone
with his thoughts’, ‘out of the spotlight’ with ‘the only sound the
scratching of Tony’s pen.’  And, presumably, the sound of the camera
shutter and flash of the photographer sent along to record the occasion.

When the Conservatives returned to Opposition, the room saw plenty of
dramatic scenes.  William Hague, who placed a portrait of his hero
William Pitt on the wall, arrived at a Shadow Cabinet meeting one
evening in 1998 to announce to colleagues he had just fired Lord
Cranbourne as Conservative Leader in the Lords for his secret deal with
Labour on Lords reform.   Five years later, in October 2003, Iain
Duncan Smith marched in to tell his senior colleagues that despite
mounting criticism he would not resign.  His press aide Nick Wood
recorded that ‘his colleagues banged the table, but they made a hollow
sound.’  Less than a week later, MPs triggered the vote of no
confidence which ended his leadership.

Michael Howard’s Chief of Staff Stephen Sherbourne, like Airey Neave
before him, identified the problem of lack of office space, but found a
solution with admirable speed.  Instead of moving into the Shadow
Cabinet block, Howard and his team instead took over offices in the
Norman Shaw South Parliamentary outbuilding, which had recently
reopened after a refurbishment.   The old Shadow Cabinet Room was still
used for meetings, and it was here that Michael Howard unveiled his
new, slimmed-down Shadow Cabinet to the press.  He reduced its size to
just 12 people, a fact that meant meetings could also be held in his
office if necessary.  The innovative idea was not deemed a success,
however, and in a reshuffle the following year the Shadow Cabinet grew
again to a size that more closely matched both the number in the Labour
cabinet and the number of seats around the Shadow Cabinet table.

More recently, David Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet has risked becoming too
large to fit comfortably around the table.  Their first meeting
following the last reshuffle in July was therefore held in the Attlee
Room in Portcullis House, where there was room for them to gather in
comfort and pose for group photographs.  Regular meetings have now
switched back to the more traditional setting of the Shadow Cabinet
Room, where the more limited space means that Cameron leads a very
close-knit team in every sense.

As they rub elbows every week, today’s Shadow Cabinet can draw
inspiration from the fact that they are following in the tradition of
their predecessors, who sat around the same table thirty years ago.
The decisions taken then launched the Thatcher revolution and formed
the basis for eighteen years of Conservative government.  Perhaps it is
as well that the current incumbents are not making themselves too
comfortable.

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