Revealed:how Thatcher battled with Geoffrey Howe,and lost, over TV in the Commons.

Previously secret Cabinet papers show how Margaret Thatcher, defeated in a free vote in the House of Commons in 1988 over the principle of televising Parliament, battled on unsuccessfully against her deputy, Sir Geoffrey Howe, over the details.
‘Ministers were never consulted or even told about this- contrary to previous practice’ she wrote on a written answer in which Howe updated MPs on negotiations with the broadcasters . As Leader of the House Howe had taken over responsibility from John Wakeham for setting the rules for Commons TV. He accepted the arguments against some of the restrictions imposed by Wakeham, such as limiting camera shots to the head and shoulders of the MP who was speaking. In a hand-written note on the text of the Commons answer Thatcher said of Howe’s compromises ‘I am very against some of these things’. She singled out one which would allow camera shots ‘showing the reaction of a group of members’ because ‘the group shots will be particularly damaging’.
The Cabinet papers for 1989-90, now released to the National Archives, show her Downing Street team trying to stop Howe, then Lord President of the Council, making any more compromises without her having the chance to challenge them. In February 1990 her Principal Private Secretary,Andrew Turnbull, told her ‘you were understandably irritated by being taken by surprise over the changes to the guidelines for televising the Commons’. Turnbull explained that ‘the origin of the problem is that when John Wakeham was Leader of the House he had a good working relationship with Bernard Ingham…the original guidelines drew heavily on Bernard’s advice.With the new Lord President that channel does not exist’.
He outlined a procedure which ‘would give us what we want without having to deal directly with the Lord President. It would also allow the Lord President to stand on his dignity and claim that as  the Chairman of a Committee of the House, he is not mandated by Government’. To which the Prime Minister added ‘Nor as Lord President is he entitled to ignore his colleagues’.The next year Howe resigned from Thatcher’s Government with a speech that many saw as the start of her downfall.
The files also show Downing Street staff preparing for the inevitable day when the Commons would be shown live, focusing on the lessons to be learned from not-for-transmission TV experiments in the Commons. In October 1989 Dominic Morris, who later worked at TV regulators ITC and Ofcom, sent the Prime Minister a video of a Commons statement she had made and the subsequent exchange with the then Leader of the Opposition, Neil Kinnock. He explained that ‘the tapes of proceedings have been made available by the House authorities only to you and to Mr Kinnock’. Morris had studied the tapes with Thatcher’s Political Secretary, John Whittingdale (later the Culture Secretary), and ‘both of us can only say you need only do in the future as you did yesterday. The pitch of voice is just right as is eye level and stance (Mr Kinnock appears to have rather more to learn)’.
Morris wrote of ‘two points which struck me’ and these read like firm advice to his Prime Minister rather than mere observations:
‘1.The extent to which television sanitises the proceedings of the Chamber. It takes out a great deal of the passion. That puts a premium on calm debaters and (in the material we provide you) on the telling quote quietly deployed. The extracts you used yesterday from Labour Government spokesman and from Bishop Tutu on sanctions were devastating.
2.The importance of reaction shots of front bench colleagues. It looks much better if, rather than sitting solemn, they show obvious approval (as did Mr Baker on one occasion’) when telling points are made’.
Thatcher accepted an invitation from Morris to attend a seminar by Anthony Jay, one of the creators of her favourite TV series ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister’.The seminar  would use clips of ‘good and bad points of ministerial performances to reinforce best practice’. Her presence would ‘strongly reinforce the message to colleagues that mastering the cameras in the early days is going to be very important’.
In the same month Morris sent Thatcher another Commons video so that she could see ‘how the lighting and eye angle comes across from the different cameras.You may also want Crawfie to have a quick look at it to help ideas on clothes for Questions Time’.
‘Crawfie’ was Cynthia Crawford, who had been a member of Thatcher’s local Conservative constituency party in Finchley, went on to become her personal assistant and a close friend until the former Prime Minister’s death in April 2013, aged 87.

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