This Conservative Party Conference in October 1963 in Blackpool introduced me for the first time to a small part of the mechanisms of Government.
Since this conference was for party members, Government Ministers who attended were required to observe a strict separation of State and Party. That did not mean they had to be totally out of touch, but in order to aid this process, the party organisation established a ‘Ministers’ Office’ located in the Imperial hotel in Blackpool.
I was ‘roped in’ by my regional boss and my national boss, who were running the office, to assist them. However, on one crucial evening I was left ‘in charge’ - the other two had taken the evening off to attend the traditional conference dinner of the party’s constituency agents.
In one corner of this office lurked a typical black telephone (it would be considered retro today), but this one was attached to a large black box - this was the scrambler connected direct line for Government use. I use the term ‘lurked’ simply because this instrument seemed to possess an importance all of its own, given that it had been positioned on a table.
On this particular evening I and a secretary were sitting enjoying a glass of wine waiting for any calls, when this telephone started ringing. Geraldine, the secretary answered it. It was someone looking for Iain Macleod’s secretary. Iain Macleod was the Party Chairman, as well as being Leader of the House of Commons, and his secretary had a desk in our office. She had taken the evening off because her boss was speaking to the agents at their dinner, and the speech had been finished and typed ready for delivery.
About half an hour later the telephone rang again, and this time the caller wanted to know if we knew how to contact Iain Macleod’s secretary. We didn’t.
Half an hour after that the telephone jangled again.
This time I was there alone, so I answered. The caller, a man, demanded to know who I was. I explained who I was and what my duties were. He told me to switch on the scrambler button, and he told me he was Tim Bligh the PM’s private secretary and he needed to speak to Iain Macleod urgently. His efforts to make contact through the Winter Gardens, where the dinner was being held, had resulted in a rather chaotic conclusion.
He told me I must immediately take a car used for Ministers, find Iain Macleod and speak personally to him. I was to tell him simply the Prime Minster had been taken to hospital, and he must call a direct number at 10 Downing Street. Under no circumstances should I repeat this message to anyone else.
So, I headed off. The diners were still in the middle of dinner. I went in and knelt at Iain Macleod’s side. I told him of my conversation with No.10, and at once he got up, made his apologies, and we went in search of a telephone. He said to me, ‘Let’s see what young Tim wants so urgently. You know I did have a very strange message earlier that my mother had died. Since that had happened some years ago I decided it was someone playing silly beggars!’
We had been informed we could use the direct line in the manager’s office. When we got there the office was locked.
Eventually, as we toured the bowels of the Blackpool Winter Gardens complex we found a member of the staff. He told us the manager had gone for ‘a beer and a fag’, and directed us to the call box by the stage door. This was an old penny in the slot cubicle. It was the only telephone we could use.
Iain Macleod squeezed himself into the cubicle housing this ‘phone and I fed what coins I had to him through a slot in the folding door. It was perhaps a rather bizarre way for a senior Minister to discuss information of such historic proportions, and subsequent consequences!
The call was finished, and Iain Macleod reeled off a list of names of key party figures. He said, ‘I want you, and you alone to go and find each of them. Tell them only that I need to see them urgently in my suite. Organise with the hotel to serve them with sandwiches in case any of them haven’t had their dinner yet, coffee, and drinks. When you’ve delivered the last of them, come back here and collect me, which should give me time to make my speech’.
Later, in the car on the way back to the hotel Iain Macleod smiled at me, and said, ‘Suppose you’ve already begun to work out what all this means?’ I admitted I had, and he cautioned me not to discuss it with anyone.
I felt we formed a bond that night - I hesitate now to presume to describe it as a friendship - but from that moment on, he always treated me as if I were a friend, and I consider I was privileged to hold a number of intimate conversations with him in the years which followed that conference before he died so prematurely in 1970. On one occasion, on discovering I had no idea how to play bridge, he offered to teach me - Iain Macleod was acknowledged as one of the finest bridge players of his generation.
That night taught me much about some of the ways in which Government has to function. I later thought about what had happened, and it troubled me knowing that for a period of time I was probably the only person in Blackpool who had any idea of what was to come! It’s only now I feel I can relay that experience to you!
The following night I was on ferrying duty, and I went to the Winter Gardens to collect Lord Home (Alec Douglas-Home) from a tour of the various regional parties. As we walked through the complex to the car we heard cheering from a smaller conference room where, as we discovered later, Lord Hailsham was renouncing his peerage, and declaring his intention to contest the leadership election.
As we reached the car I asked Lord Home if I could travel back to the hotel with him. He agreed, but he asked in turn if we could first take him to observe the Blackpool Illuminations. His detective was sitting up front with the driver, and so Lord Home invited me to join him in the back.
It was not a problem for me to see the Lights and we did the full tour. He was fascinated by the display and the numbers of lights and tableaux on show. At the time I could not help feeling how normal it all seemed to be. There was me, a very lowly party employee, escorting the Foreign Secretary of the day, and Prime Minister soon to be, on a tour of the famous Illuminations!
See what happens when I meet a Soviet Russian click here