General Election ‘87
I was to learn just how much the 'rules had changed' when we began the preparations for the election campaign ahead in 1987. I was called to a meeting to discuss the planning for a new General Election and learnt the security services were insisting Mrs Thatcher should be cocooned in Government cars with tight security because of the abnormally high threat levels they were detecting.
I was delighted to discover Mrs T would have none of it, but those responsible for security did insist on much higher levels than at previous elections. I established with Mrs T that she wanted to maintain her battle bus at all costs. I started by being sceptical we could find a satisfactory solution, but she insisted I would solve it, and solve it we did, because this was a massive team effort.
We discovered with careful work we could, in effect, re-build a passenger coach with all the additional kit needed to make it bullet proof and protected, or at least part of it.
Mrs T however wanted the vehicle to be wholly British - which presented us with a real problem since British Leyland had all but disappeared as a manufacturing entity.
Most touring coaches coming onto the market at that time had bodywork made by the Belgian company van Hool, and although some of the construction was done in the UK, the bodywork was made in Belgium. Then there was the engine and chassis - most being sold in Britain were Volvo or Scania or Mercedes, with no British engines being made anymore.
We solved it by buying one the last coaches with a Leyland engine and chassis and British coachwork made by Duple, whilst that company was still in British hands and making bodies. The coach was not old as coaches go, and the Lancashire coach company to whose fleet it belonged agreed to sell it to us.
It was a major exercise to strip it down, and install all of the parts needed. We had to construct a separate compartment in the middle of the vehicle - reinforced steel floor, with steel panels in the lower panel sections, and inside, separating this section from the front and rear sections - bullet proof glass with each window weighing half a ton - and Kevlaer, the material used for bullet proof vests, lining the roof - we had a battle bus approved by the security services.
The picture on the left is taken from the inside of the compartment showing the steel panelling in place. The progress of the work on the protected section was regularly inspected. The picture below was taken at a second inspection from outside the compartment looking towards the rear of the coach, and shows the steel reinforcement at the rear of the special section, and the bullet-proof glass installed at the front. On the right of the picture you can see the electronic installations for fax and computers taking shape.
The total weight of these additional items was too much to arm the whole vehicle, so we had to settle for the separated compartment in which Mrs Thatcher would always travel whenever we were on the move. When finished, it looked exactly like any previous battle bus, but we knew ‘under the skin’ the specially reinforced compartment would protect the key personnel on board.
We very nearly came unstuck however when the campaign got under way - in our first week we only used the coach on two days, but the high speed journeys, aided and abetted by local police forces, virtually destroyed the clutch system. No one had allowed for the massive extra weight the vehicle was being forced to carry.
Fortunately there were still enough Leyland engineers around, and over the following weekend a group of them built a new much more powerful clutch system, enabling our heavier vehicle to do its job properly.
This really was a ‘Battle Bus’ - an armoured battle bus, and it was launched to the Press as the first campaign engagement in Docklands. The ‘Saatchi’ people had the idea of putting the slogan ‘Moving Forward With Maggie’ front and back. The news hounds tried hard to spot the alterations, but failed, until one of the photographers realised the thickness of the windows in the middle! We also equipped it with what was then considered to be ‘state of the art’ communications - two radio telephones, and with telephone, computer and fax links via the newly expanding cell phone network.
Today’s twenty-first century generations with their smart phones, able to send ‘stuff’ around the world with the flick of a thumb, would perhaps not appreciate the problems we experienced in 1987 with getting signals in some parts of the country, particularly when you realise this was all happening less than a quarter of a century ago!
When the communications system was being installed in the coach by the engineers, the company involved admitted there had only been two experiments of transmitting fax messages directly to a moving vehicle. So this coach was to be a working prototype in every sense!
Every day of the programme when we were using the coach for campaigning, we received and sent faxed messages, such as speech drafts of multiple pages. It meant the speech writing teams could remain in London with access to all the latest information, instead of needing to travel ahead as had been the case in earlier campaigns. It was a major step forward in our campaign planning.
The picture on the right is a favourite. Mrs T testing the seating in the compartment, and the degree to which she could see through the bullet-proof glass facing to the back. She was cool calm and collected, ready for the 'off'.
It was one of the most fascinating projects I was ever associated with, but the reasons behind the construction of the special compartment have always caused me deep concern!
It made the Chief Constable's statement following the Brighton bomb that the rules had changed, come home with a real bang, and of course subsequent events in the world have shown us by how much the rules have gone on changing!
The picture below was taken a year after the Election. Mrs T gave a small private party for me at No.10 when I decided to leave employment with the Conservative Party. It was typical of her generosity to show personal thanks to those who worked for her.
(The pictures related to the coach were taken by me! This last picture by Srdja Djukanovic)
Face to Face with Vice President Bush click here