So farewell then Margaret Thatcher. The greatest Prime Minister in my lifetime. In 1979 I worked in a bank and my working class boss said if we didn't vote for Maggie that night we were doomed. He was right. Some, though, think she hastened the demise of the British car industry. Well she certainly had an interesting relationship with British cars.
In opposition she not unreasonably asked, “Well, Michael Edwards, and why should we pour further funds into British Leyland?” His response was to restructure the company with factory closures and mass redundancies.
The workforce voted for it and this led directly to BL being able to sack shop steward Derek Robinson, who had produced his own response to that report, which was interpreted as gross misconduct — and that was a sackable offence. Issuing Robbo’s P45 ultimately meant that robots could go ahead to build a new small car, the Mini Metro, which was a big success. So against her instincts Thatcher saved BL.
Mrs Thatcher’s preferred transport as prime minister was the Rover P5. It was a suitably imposing and reassuring car especially in black, which perfectly suited the style of not one, but four Prime Ministers. From Harold Wilson, to Ted Heath, then James Callaghan and finally Margaret Thatcher.
Both Harold and Maggie ultimately shared the same 1972 model, which had been modified for Wilson with a special ashtray in the rear seat armrest to accommodate his pipe and matches.
Indeed, the last batch of Rover P5s to be built was reserved exclusively for official use. During Margaret Thatcher’s time in office she made sure that at least a dozen of them remained on the fleet, apparently because she hated the thought of government ministers being seen in its successors, the Rover P6 and SD1.
Although as a British Leyland product it was a vehicle that was owned by the British people (and the company was technically run by the government), the car was really a metaphor for shoddy workmanship and catastrophic industrial relations.
When Margaret Thatcher was planning to change marques during the 1980s she needed a manufacturer that represented a more entrepreneurial age. One that was no longer state run but recently privatised and owned by shareholders.
Arthur Daley, one of the central characters in TV’s hugely popular Minder, was clearly a Thatcherite, so it only seemed appropriate that she be seen in the same Jaguar XJ saloon that he was driving. What not many people know is that the cars both Daley and Thatcher had were the posher XJ version, with Daimler badging and more chrome.
By the late 1980s, BL chairman Graham Day submitted his corporate plan to the government, which had a £1 billion price tag attached in order to get BL through the next five years. By then, though, Mrs Thatcher and her cabinet had had enough.
British Aerospace was convinced to take the whole lot for what has subsequently been regarded as a giveaway price: £150 million. The company was in British hands but it was the beginning of the end for the industry, which would no longer rely on a subsidy.
Margaret Thatcher didn’t start British Leyland, Harold Wilson did, but at least she helped in finishing it. Good.