Bernard Jenkin MP reflects on his very personal experience of the Brighton Bomb, 25 years ago.
I drove the Environment Secretary (my father) down to the 1984 conference, where I would meet my wife-to-be for the first time. Apparently, I caught Anne's eye as we entered the Grand Hotel that evening. I was meeting another girl for a drink, who subsequently introduced me to Anne, along with a whole gang of people, including John Whittingdale, Michael Dobbs, Nick True, Richard Ehrman and Michael Portillo. We all went out to dinner. Anne and I got on wonderfully from the start.
For us it seemed to be a heady week, of politics, parties and a growing passion. We could so easily have been in the Grand, but we heard the blast from some way off. We only began to suspect it was a bomb as emergency vehicles sped past. This was before the days of mobile phones, but I called the police on a landline, knowing that my father was staying at the Grand. I was kept hanging on for ages. Finally, "There has been a blast at the Grand. So far we only have reports of cuts and scratches from flying glass." I was told to stay put and wait till they called back with more news.
We waited two very long, very tense hours. When the phone rang, I leapt for it. "All members of the government are accounted for," was the cryptic comment. The poor girl on the end of the phone had no idea where my Dad was.
In the cold grey light of early dawn, Anne and I set off to look for him, passing from hotel to hotel to asking if anyone had seen him. When we saw the front of the Grand itself, we were astonished by the damage. Clearly there would be worse than cuts and scratches.
Lots of people were standing around in pyjamas, or dressing gowns. Michael Spicer was wearing nothing but a towel. Keith Joseph was sitting on his red box on the pavement outside – yes he had seen him. So had Norman Fowler. Rumour was that the Tebbits and the Wakehams were missing, but until I set eyes on my Dad, I did not care about much else.
We tracked him down. He has a phlegmatic temperament. He had been staying in an undamaged part of the hotel. The bomb itself had not woken him, nor the fire alarm, but the sound of running and shouting in the corridor. He thought it was the Young Conservatives making mayhem, but when he peered round the door, "I was told to get out immediately"! Seizing his raincoat and pulling on a pair of shoes, he took nothing else at all, and joined the scrum running down several flights of stairs, which were lit by dim emergency lights. They were enough to let one see the frightful damage to the whole of the front of the entrance hall, with a packed wall of rubble where the front door had been. After waiting on the seafront under the street lamps for sometime, they were told to go to another hotel. There was no returning to the Grand to collect anything – not even clothing, let alone government papers. He accepted an offer of a bed in another hotel from Gordon Grieg of the Daily Mail. At about 6am, we burst into his room – "Thank god your safe!" He sat up in the bed and turned on the light. There then followed the faintly comic scene, typically British and unaffected by crisis. "Oh! By the way," I said…. and so Anne met her future father-in-law for the first time.
I subsequently telephoned home to wake my mother, to let her know we were all well. It was only when we got to watch a television that the true horror of the attack became evident. The conference had been intoxicating and euphoric before the bomb. The last day was a mixture of fatigue and mild hysteria as we regailed one another with stories of the night, and of raw emotion and pride that our Leader and Prime Minister was utterly undaunted. She was surrounded by her ministers, all kitted out in M&S suits – party Treasurer Lord McAlpine had telephoned Lord Sieff to get the Brighton store opened early in the morning.
I confess I cannot bring myself to attend any kind of reconciliation with the bomber. I don't resent those who do. Perhaps I should do the same, but I will always remember meeting Roberta Wakeham for the first, and last, time in glorious autumn sunshine the day before. I am haunted by the long journey that Margaret Tebbit has had to travel since then. I don't feel it's for me to forgive McGee's sin. I am not Jesus Christ. I would feel unable to look Norman Tebbit in the face again.