Norman Tebbit’s hair was standing on end when Callum McCarthy, his Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), visited him in the Royal Sussex County Hospital after the IRA bombed Brighton’s Grand Hotel.
‘Secretary of State, what happened to your hair?’ the civil servant inquired.
‘Oh that,’ Tebbit nonchalantly replied, ‘was when I was electrocuted.’
It wasn’t a joke. He’d been trapped in the rubble for hours, with cold water gushing over him and occasional shocks from severed electricity cables.
‘He looked pretty rough,’ says Ruth Thompson, his private secretary, another early visitor. ‘We could see lots of cuts and bruises on his face and hands. He was perfectly conscious and compos mentis, but he was talking like someone who’d had a profound shock, not surprisingly.
Norman Tebbit gave up the chance to be PM to care for his wife after she was injured in the Brighton bombing
‘We didn’t stay long, just enough to let him know we were there. He was very matter-of-fact, as you would expect of him. He wanted us to let people know he was still alive and kicking.
‘We then started to think about how to put things back together again. But we had no idea how long he was going to be in hospital. We also knew that his wife, Margaret, had been really badly injured.’
How badly soon became apparent to the public when a freelance journalist in Brighton sold a story to a Sunday paper, based on a conversation he’d had with a nurse going off duty, who’d said Mrs Tebbit was paralysed. The hospital authorities confirmed that this was the case.
But Tebbit was not about to give up. It wasn’t in his nature. For good reason he was known in politics as the ‘Chingford Skinhead’ — after his North-East London constituency — because of his tough reputation.
He recalls: ‘By the Monday after the bomb on Friday, my private secretary had set up a temporary ministerial office at the hospital. There was no discussion about whether such an unusual arrangement was possible, because the Prime Minister had said it was. So did I.’
According to his private secretary, Andrew Lansley, ‘we were clear, and he was clear, that, though he was badly injured physically, his faculties were absolutely OK and he was going to carry on.
‘We set up an arrangement to handle the day-to-day business in the department and make sure we bothered him only with the things he really wanted to know about. Within days, he was pretty much engaged. He didn’t expect to see all the paperwork, but he did expect his senior civil servants to be telling him what was going on and giving them his views.’
Lansley made sure an early visit was seen by the Press. ‘I was on the news carrying in a red box, the purpose of which was to say to the world: “He’s all right, and he’s still in charge.” ’ In fact, the red box contained get-well-soon cards.
Another bedside regular was his Sussex Police protection officer, Brian Etheridge. One hospital consultant ‘was very regimental’ about making sure visitors didn’t tire the minister out, ‘because he was quite weak’, Etheridge says. ‘He was being fed through tubes.
HIS SURGEON’S MEDICINE? A CASE OF RED WINE…
‘Are you normally fit and healthy?’ a Stoke Mandeville surgeon asked Norman Tebbit.
‘Healthy, yes; fit, no.’
‘What exercise do you take?’
‘I have never knowingly taken gratuitous exercise in my life.’
‘Oh dear. Do you smoke?’
‘Oh, that’s better. Do you drink?’
‘What do you drink?’
‘Mostly red wine and whisky . . .’
‘Well, I want you to put on some weight, because you’re as skinny as hell. So eat as much as you can, and to help you in that process I’ll send in a case of red wine.’
‘His main concern was his wife. What made him angry was that she had really had nothing to do with what happened. She was there at the conference because of him. And she’d been injured, badly. We didn’t speak a lot about it, because he wanted to talk about anything other than the bomb.’
When a journalist was allowed to interview him, Tebbit said he’d got several broken ribs: ‘I am sure somebody knows how many, but I haven’t bothered to count. I have a deep cut on my left side. It is a bit slow to heal, because you cannot just bandage it up. I simply have to sit here and ooze. But overall I am not in too much pain.’
He concealed the full extent of his injuries so as, he later explained, not to ‘give satisfaction to those who had committed the bombing. Nor to any of my colleagues or my opponents. I didn’t want them to have any doubts that I was going to be back on song.’
Margaret Thatcher was clear that his job was waiting whenever he was ready to resume it full time, Tebbit recalls, though ‘obviously she must have had in mind the thought: “Is Norman going to make it? Is he going to recover?”
‘My department covered a pretty wide waterfront in those days. She must have wondered how long she could have a Secretary of State who wasn’t really carrying a full load of Cabinet work.’ After a fortnight, the Tebbits were transferred to Stoke Mandeville Hospital near Aylesbury, so Margaret could be treated at its specialist spinal- injuries unit.
The helicopter journey from Brighton was planned in secret. Ambulances and police cars were drawn up to the front of the hospital, while they were smuggled out of the back and taken to a nearby school playing field.
While Tebbit had wanted to walk the short distance to the field, as he recalled, ‘I was overruled by a female wing commander who insisted I go on a stretcher. Which I didn’t want to do, because I thought the sooner I was seen to be able to walk, the better.
For good reason he was known in politics as the ‘Chingford Skinhead’ — after his North-East London constituency — because of his tough reputation.
‘But she outranked me. I’d been a flying officer in the RAF, so I obeyed orders.’
At Stoke Mandeville, Tebbit had three private secretaries and a diary secretary, and there was always at least one on site. Lansley says: ‘We were very focused on keeping him up to speed on work, because it was good therapy for him. Otherwise he would just dwell on Margaret’s injuries, and that wasn’t going to help him at all.’
Ruth Thompson says: ‘More things were delegated to his junior ministers [Ken Baker, Norman Lamont and Paul Channon]. But a lot of things weren’t. He seemed to me to be amazingly on the ball.’
Tebbit says: ‘Without having something to do, I would have become introspective, and thought too much about my own injuries. And more particularly my wife’s injuries, as it gradually became clear that she was not going to make much recovery. I had to think through how we would manage, which was quite complicated.’
As a couple, they had been very dependent on each other. Now her disability meant a profound and lifetime change.
‘It was as if he felt that he was partly responsible,’ Ruth Thompson says. ‘He was the one who’d gone into public life, and look what had happened to her. Was he feeling guilty? I don’t know. He wouldn’t have used the word. Did he feel shattered by it? He probably did.’
Tebbit was still a sick man. Soon after moving to Stoke Mandeville, he had a serious operation on his thigh, from which a large chunk of flesh had been gouged out as he lay in the rubble of what had been his room in the Grand Hotel.
He also had to have part of his pelvis removed, a skin graft, and then another one when the initial one didn’t work properly.
He admits this was ‘annoying’, but denies it stopped him working. ‘It’s not only whores that work flat on their back, you know.’
The DTI’s key business at the time of the Brighton bombing was the privatisation of British Telecom. ‘It had to be taken through on the schedule that we’d set,’ Tebbit recalls.
Key decisions, about the pricing and allocation of shares, couldn’t be postponed. He agreed the price for the share flotation with Nigel Lawson, the Chancellor, while lying in bed. ‘So by then I was obviously, very much back in the driving seat again.’
Sir Brian Hayes, joint permanent secretary at Tebbit’s department, says: ‘For practical purposes, he was never absent. Very quickly after the bomb, he was seeing the papers. His brain was working as it always did — very effectively.’ But if anyone thought they could relax in his absence, they were in for a shock. An unnamed official was quoted in the Financial Times: ‘He’s not here but on the other hand, he’s around, and from time to time, makes his presence felt.’
Another anonymous source told the paper: ‘You’re sitting there enjoying the freedom of having the boss away, then you look through your in-tray and find a brief missive saying: “Hope you’re not spending too much of my money while I’m away,” and it’s signed by Tebbit.’
Nobody had any idea when he’d be back. ‘In the beginning,’ says Ruth Thompson, ‘a fortnight was talked about. But that wasn’t realistic, because his injuries were found to be worse than had been thought and he had to have skin grafts and the like.
‘So people quickly got used to the new arrangement, though they didn’t like it. Every civil servant wants to be able to eyeball the minister about difficult decisions. But nobody could complain. It was palpably not his fault that he couldn’t see them.’
But not all Tebbit’s bedside visitors were government officials. One day, Fred Bishop, the fire fighter who’d pulled him out of the debris of the Grand, arrived with two colleagues. They’d been sent for by Tebbit’s doctors with a specific purpose in mind
Bishop says: ‘His physical state was very bad, but his mental state was what they were concerned about. They wanted us there because he’d have to discuss the incident with us. It was the only thing we had in common, really.
‘We got him talking. Afterwards, the doctors said to us: “Brilliant, he’s opened up at last.” ’
Tebbit had been in danger of internalising the whole experience, which would not have been good. Now, after his chat with the firemen, in the words of his doctors, he was ‘coming back up again’.
Bishop also saw Margaret Tebbit at Stoke Mandeville. When he went into her room, she said excitedly: ‘Fred, look at this,’ and she raised her arm, very slightly.
‘Margaret, that’s magic.’
‘Yeah — but I can’t put it down. Can you put it down for me?’
He was impressed by her sense of humour. He recalls her saying: ‘I’m glad this happened to me and not Norman, being severely damaged and becoming an invalid.’
He marvelled at her stoicism. ‘Margaret, that attitude is absolutely wonderful,’ he told her.
‘No,’ she replied, ‘it’s because he’d be impossible to live with.’
By now Tebbit was proving difficult to keep in hospital, getting, in his own words, ‘p***ed off’ at being stuck in there. So he discharged himself, and returned to his office in London, where a pre-Christmas party was underway to celebrate the BT privatisation.
‘It was my first occasion out of hospital, and it was quite painful being driven there. I arrived and went up in a lift, and as the doors opened, there was a party going on — a pretty good one.
‘So I stood at the door and shouted at the top of my voice: “So that’s what you buggers get up to when I’m not here, is it?”’
The Chingford Skinhead was back. The next month, he made his first post-bomb Cabinet appearance, and said he was looking forward to ‘roughing up the Labour Party before too long’.
Five days later he returned to the Commons despatch box ‘feeling that nervousness a racing-car driver might have the first time he was on the starting line after having had a major accident. I was wondering: “Am I quite as good as I was before?”
‘But I was determined to demonstrate I was the same old Tebbit, and certainly not looking for sympathy. Nor was there any element of Labour going easy on me, because I wasn’t going easy on them. Normal service was resumed.’
But some things had changed. ‘I was back in the office and coping OK, but I had no domestic life, obviously, apart from my visits out to Stoke Mandeville to see Margaret. And so I probably worked longer hours than I would normally have done.
‘Most of the rest of the time I spent in the Commons, because I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I was living in a little flat over Admiralty House, with a lovely view, but it was a bed-sitter, not a place where you particularly want to be. So I would either be at the department at work, or with my mates in the Commons, or I’d be out at Stoke visiting Margaret.’
He also had his protection team. ‘Intelligence showed that the IRA were anxious to finish the job, so my name was high on the list of people they wanted to murder.
‘My protection people went everywhere with me, so that was an additional source of company. It was a curious life, until my wife came out of the hospital, which was quite some time.’
He didn’t suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, as many caught up in the bombing did. He says: ‘The mind has a great capacity for shoving painful and unwelcome things out of the way. It’s a part of the defence mechanism. And I let that happen.
‘I was fortunate in that I’d got a demanding job, and a lot of people helping me to get back to it. So there was plenty to fill my days, fill my mind, and I didn’t get unduly introspective.
‘It was only quite a bit later, really when my wife came out of hospital, that I began to wonder whether it was fair on her for me to continue in a job that was so demanding of time and concentration. That was when I decided to step down from government.’
He gave up a lot. ‘We all knew that Tebbit could have been Prime Minister,’ Andrew Lansley says. But he put that ambition aside, out of necessity and loyalty.
Lansley explains: ‘The demands that ministerial office place on families and spouses are in their way greater than they are for the minister themselves.
‘Suddenly, with the injuries, he realised what a price Margaret, his Margaret, was having to pay, for the life that he had chosen.
He gave up everything to look after her.
Tebbit remains philosophical about that dark night in October 1984 when his world literally fell in on top of him.
‘People do recover. In World War II, terrible things happened to people but they were not expected to go away and cry, they were expected to get back up and get on with it.
‘Growing up in the war, being bombed, seeing the odd ceiling come down, windows and doors blown in, you were aware of the fragility of life.
‘Nor was having spent the night in an air-raid shelter accepted as an excuse for not having done your homework. And that was reinforced by my time in the RAF and losing colleagues.
‘We weren’t expected to make fusses. And that, I think, was a good preparation for coming a bit unstuck in later life.’
Something Has Gone Wrong: Dealing With The Brighton Bomb by Steven Ramsey is published by Biteback on January 11, 2018, priced £12.99. To order a copy for £10.39 (20 per cent discount), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640, p&p is free on orders over £15. Offer valid until January 17, 2018.