Ministerial drivers: The silent front-seat witnesses

By Giles Edwards & Ben Wright
BBC News

image captionDenis Oliver was driving during this emotional moment

Margaret Thatcher's resignation, Geoffrey Howe's demotion and the Brighton IRA bomb - ministerial drivers were the silent witnesses at all these major events.

For many years, one group of people has had access to the most intimate secrets in government.

They have been invited into ministers' families and private offices, uniquely seeing both their public and private faces.

In the process, they have literally found themselves sitting in the front seat while history is made.

Ministerial car driver Denis Oliver had just started driving Margaret Thatcher when the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984.

He was staying two floors above the prime minister's room.

"I shot in to her room to see," he recalls, "and she was just packing up all the papers in the box, all very methodically. And she said at the time, I'll never forget, I said, 'are you okay prime minister,' and she said, 'Yes, I'm amazed it hasn't happened before.'"

Mr Oliver's great friend and fellow driver Peter Smithson drove Sir Geoffrey Howe for 24 years. For him, the aftermath of the Brighton bomb involved a hair-raising drive.

"The SAS came with a car and they had a car in front and one behind, doing about 100mph. We even had police on bridges and motorway crossings and things like that, we were just flat out."

But the horrific and the extraordinary often sit side by side with the mundane, and nothing illustrates this better than the drivers' responses to the threat of violent attack.

For much of the 1970s and 1980s, car bombs were the favoured means of attack by the IRA, which put them in great danger.

"The first thought when you got in and switched on was, 'if I switch on and it goes bang, that's it,'" remembers Margaret Narroway, a long-serving driver.

"That was always in your mind. After you'd switched on and it'd been running a little while you'd think 'oh, we're okay today' and off you'd go. You just took it in your stride."

Occupying a position that many an interested observer would relish, a driver's proximity to senior ministers means they see the episodes that do not often make it into news reports or autobiography.

To be trusted with such a position demands responsibility and discretion. They are always careful not to tell too much, but having driven Mrs Thatcher for 14 years, Mr Oliver is able to reveal some of her quirks.

While most ministers make it a habit to run late, she apparently adopted the opposite policy - for example, leaving very early because she was always worried about leaving enough time to get to Windsor Castle to see the Queen.

image captionMrs Thatcher was famously calm after the Brighton bomb

"We used to park in a lay-by by the Thames there," he laughs, "and we used to spend three quarters of an hour there sometimes before we moved out to be on time for the castle."

And then of course there was the time he discussed the poll tax with her.

"We had a little discussion about that in the car in actual fact," he reveals. The two did not see eye to eye, the only time they ever disagreed, and of course history records that she did not change her plans.

Next door in the Foreign Office, in 1989, Sir Geoffrey beckoned in his driver, and told him that he was no longer the foreign secretary.

"He told me before anybody, and I said, 'I don't believe it,'" recalls Mr Smithson. Many outside agreed, but few had a good enough relationship with Howe to say what his driver told him next.

"I said to him, 'Well if you're no longer the foreign secretary what are you?' And he says, 'I'm leader of the House,' and I said to him, 'well that's not a job,' I mean I couldn't help saying that."

Little more than a year later, Mrs Thatcher herself fell.

This time, Sir Geoffrey had resigned and precipitated a leadership crisis in the Conservative Party.

One of the most famous images ever taken in Downing Street was of Mrs Thatcher, tears in her eyes, waving from the back of her car as she was driven from Downing Street for the last time.

Her driver still clearly remembers that final journey.

"That was the only time a word wasn't spoken in that car from the time we left Downing Street until she came out of Buckingham Palace," Mr Oliver says. "Nobody spoke a word, not even DT - Denis Thatcher. It was silence in the car all the way up. It was quite an emotional drive, that."

image captionPeter Smithson enjoyed a long stint with Geoffrey Howe

Not every drive was so emotional, and even at moments of history, more mundane concerns can be what captures the attention of those in the front seat.

In 1981, Norman Tebbit was being tipped to be employment secretary in the next reshuffle.

His driver, Beryl Osborne, known as Ossie, had her fingers crossed for his promotion, because she would be able to exchange her tatty old ministerial car for a bright new model.

When Tebbit emerged from No 10, she asked him simply: "Have I got my car?" He nodded.

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