Files reveal Margaret Thatcher's frugal side

Margaret Thatcher in the kitchen of her flat at 10 Downing Street Margaret Thatcher in the kitchen of her flat at 10 Downing Street

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Margaret Thatcher's early life as a grocer's daughter was a far cry from the sometimes lavish surroundings she later found herself in as Britain's first female prime minister.

And it seems her relatively modest upbringing stayed with her after she entered No 10.

Government papers from 1979, made public for the first time by the National Archives, suggest she kept a very close eye on the costs of furnishing her official residence.

The documents reveal how the "Iron Lady" insisted on paying for her own ironing board and dictated that spending on her official residence at No 10 should be as "economical as possible".

'Impossible to believe'

In June 1979, William Hamilton, Labour MP for Central Fife, asked for the total costs of refurbishing ministers' accommodation, including official residences, since the 3 May elections.

In response, a breakdown of spending for each government department was published without Mrs Thatcher's office being consulted.

Total costs for refurbishing ministers' accommodation

  • Prime Minister: £1,836
  • Chancellor of the Exchequer: £2,685
  • Education and Science: £135
  • Energy: £720
  • Environment: £1,939
  • Foreign and Commonwealth Office: £802
  • Home Office: £20
  • Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries: £924
  • Trade: £16,245
  • Treasury: £1,425
  • Welsh Office: £255
  • Total: £26,986

Source: Department of the Environment, 20 June 1979

And it appeared to cause quite a stir.

Officials expressed scepticism over the costs for refurbishing No 10, stating they thought the figures inaccurate.

In a document detailing costs, including £464 for replacing linen and pillows and £209 for replacing crockery, one official writes in a handwritten note: "I find these figures impossible to believe."

Mrs Thatcher voices her agreement, writing "So do I!".

The former prime minister queries the cost of the bedding by writing a note saying: "We use only one bedroom". And the £19 cost of an ironing board prompts her to scribble: "I will pay for the ironing board."

On a separate document from the Property Services Agency, she again insists in a handwritten note: "I will pay for the ironing board and other things.

"We have sufficient linen for the one bedroom we use."

National Archives document showing expenditure of refurbishing on No 10 Downing Street with handwritten notes from Margaret Thatcher in blue Margaret Thatcher's handwritten notes are in blue, while the official's comments are in black

The Department for Environment, which published the figures, is given a dressing down in a stern letter from Mrs Thatcher's private secretary.

It says "this must not happen again" because it is "all too likely" that such information will be picked up and "used against the prime minister at Question Time".

Mrs Thatcher's wish that "all expenditure on the flat should be as economical as possible" is also expressed in separate correspondence from her private secretary.

'Sleeping in the loo'

In another exchange, this time between the Welsh Office and Downing Street, Mrs Thatcher expresses her alarm that a "flatlet" for MPs to stay at the Cardiff HQ could cost tens of thousands of pounds.

The protocol of chairs

Prior to a meeting between Margaret Thatcher and the French president at Number 10 in 1979, the French expressed unhappiness over the choice of chairs.

The French were unhappy that Mrs Thatcher's chair would have arms on it and President Giscard d'Estaing's would not, according to one file.

The file contains a report of an exchange on this issue between Sir Reginald Hibbert, the British Ambassador in Paris, and Jacques Wahl, Secretary General to the Presidency of the French Republic.

Wahl suggests the president would be "surprised" if the chairs in question were not of the same sort.

Hibbert says the British may feel even more surprised if the president were not able to accept a situation "which had been accepted over very many years by heads of state and government from all parts of the world".

Wahl said he would have to consult further with his head of protocol on the issue.

The outcome of the debate is not recorded.

"It is a good idea but not (the "not" is underlined twice) at that price. I just don't believe that one room and a bathroom flat can cost £26,000," she writes in a handwritten note on the Welsh Office's letter.

But despite ministers and senior officials facing the "preposterous situation" in which the only overnight accommodation in the building is "one's own office or the lavatory", Mrs Thatcher's office says it will not approve the money and urges a rethink. Officials in the Welsh capital later reduce their estimate to £12,000.

But the prime minister does not drop the matter there.

In a later letter, her private secretary writes that the prime minister "would be interested to see in more detail how the original estimate of £26,000 came to be".

She later thanks the Welsh Office for providing this information, and her private secretary writes: "The prime minister was pleased to learn of the more economical arrangements which have been devised."

Similar to three decades ago, the latest Conservative prime minister's spending on accommodation was scrutinised this year.

In May, it was revealed that David Cameron spent the full £30,000 of taxpayers' money available to him to refurbish his official flat in Downing Street.

However, officials said no public money was spent on furniture, fittings or accessories, making it possible that the current premier continued Mrs Thatcher's tradition of buying one's own ironing board.

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